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Manchester, N.H., online classes aren’t just a way to save money

Strapped for financial resources and suffering from teacher layoffs, the school department in Manchester, N.H., is turning to technology. The district plans to offer a variety of online and on-screen classes at its three high schools next semester. Under Manchester’s plan, some students would take online courses through New Hampshire’s “virtual” charter school, while “remote classrooms” would let students at any one of the high schools participate in courses offered at the other two.

Manchester officials contend their proposal is a win-win, saying it will help ease the classroom crunch, expand the district's educational offerings, and increase technological literacy. That argument hasn't persuaded the skeptics, who worry that the district is shortchanging kids. Several nearby towns that send their high-school-age students to Manchester are now reconsidering that arrangement.

It's certainly understandable that parents are concerned. Yet that concern shouldn't translate into an automatic rejection of online learning. It is, after all, considered the wave of the future at the university level, with more and more colleges putting courses online. It's also expanding at the high school level. According to one survey, 27 percent of high school students took at least one online course in 2009. In the Granite State, some 450 New Hampshire students are already taking classes through the state's online charter school, which bricks-and-mortar schools currently use to offer advanced and remedial courses.

Meanwhile, a comprehensive 2009 look at online learning by the US Department of Education found that college students who took some or all of their courses online performed "modestly better" than those who took the same courses in a face-to-face setting. The advantages were even bigger for "blended learning," courses that combine online instruction with some face-to-face time. One advantage the latter courses have is that they allow students more time than an average class period to devote to learning a lesson.


At the high school level, classrooms for online learning and remote courses obviously need to be supervised so that they don't become sites for extended goof-off sessions. But Manchester's plan includes provisions for doing that in both the blended-learning program and the remote classrooms.

Online learning experts say almost any subject can be taught online. Maybe so, but it may take some time to work out how lab courses in chemistry or biology can be taught well online; the same is true with some English classes that put a premium on face-to-face interaction. But technology has bridged far greater gaps. Plenty of subjects are easily taught in lecture formats — which lend themselves naturally to online instruction — and the strengths of online learning will become more evident as teachers and students develop new ways to communicate.


So skeptics should give Manchester's plan fair consideration. Done well, online learning and remote classrooms could actually enhance students' high school experience.