Governor Locke takes stock of NKHS online learning program

POULSBO — Washington Gov. Gary Locke stopped by North Kitsap High School Wednesday to check out a pioneering online education program he helped create two years ago.

Gov. Locke referred to the program — the Washington Digital Learning Commons — as a dream of his in education reform. Currently, 17 schools in the state are using the online system, which allows students to take courses over the Internet as well as research colleges and career choices.

“We were getting a little impatient with the dream,” Locke told NKHS student-users, faculty and administrators of the program. “We’re so excited that we’re now experimenting (with the program).”

Locke’s visit to NKHS, his first to a school using the University of Washington-created online educational service, was scheduled so he could see how the pilot students were reacting to the new way of learning.

Given the diverse group of around 50 students in North Kitsap using it — home schoolers in Parent Assisted Learning (PAL), Spectrum Community School students and those at the high school — the results were definitely varied.

Advanced students at the high school, using the system to take advanced placement classes not offered at NKHS, reported that the program served their purposes well.

“It’s nice to be able to take something that’s not offered here — you get a breadth of education,” said NKHS senior Tony Ferrese, who is taking Advanced Placement Physics through the Learning Commons program and whose teacher is based in Illinois. “I’ve learned quite a bit more because I can go at my own pace.”

Senior Katie Dale, who has been taking Advanced Placement Biology, said that while the program might be difficult for students who need help staying on schedule, it fit her personal needs well.

“I’m a very motivated student, so it’s easy for me to get stuff done,” Dale said.

Senior Celena Taylor, who has used the Commons to take an online personal finance class, said she likes the program for its accessibility.

“I really like the convenience,” she said. “I’m going on vacation soon and I’ll have access to a computer, so I can still do all the work when I’m gone.”

Chris Wendelyn, principal of Spectrum Community School and the PAL program had mixed feelings about the initial results.

“We’ve had students experiencing this program since September,” Wendelyn said. “Some have done well and some have not.”

Wendelyn said his main concerns were that in some ways, the program interferes with the “Guiding Principles,” North Kitsap School District’s guide for its future of education.

“There’s a lot written in the Guiding Principles in the recognition of how important the student to teacher relationship is,” Wendelyn said. “When (learning) becomes more distanced in (the Digital Learning Commons) it becomes much more challenging.”

George Ramsey, who teaches in the PAL program, echoed some of Wendelyn’s sentiments.

“We felt like the teacher/student relationship for many students is being exported,” Ramsey said. “Though we were impressed with the content.”

The other piece to the Digital Learning Commons is the career and college-search access it also gives its user. NKHS career specialist Paula Patterson has been using the ECOS (Education Career Opportunity System) to help NKHS students gain access to the resource. Patterson said she was pleased with the results of the program thus far.

“My biggest thing is to say to (Gov. Locke) is these systems should be offered to all schools,” Patterson said. “ECOS has such a wide variety of information in it from colleges to careers. It’s such a great opportunity, especially to the smaller schools.”

Suzi Piper has been the high school’s “mentor teacher” for the academic portion of the program. Piper has helped along all of the North Kitsap High School students using the system.

“(Piper) has been the heart ... and the spirit behind this program,” Assistant NKHS principal Susan Wistrand said.

“There’s been a lot of hard work put into this program,” Piper said. “It’s important to see that the governor sees the fruits of our labor.”

Locke cautioned those skeptical of the Commons away from thinking it would take away the personal touch in education by using only a computer in learning.

“The program was never meant to replace teaching,” Locke said. “We envision you’ll have to rely on building teachers as well.”

The real purpose, Locke said, was for students to utilize a learning tool that could send them beyond the limitations of course offerings at their local schools, “so that the size of the school is not an impediment to any course he or she might want to take,” he said.

“That location of the instructor is not a barrier to the student,” the governor added.

Locke also hinted that the DLC’s funding would be part of his initiative to create a $1 billion trust fund in Washington education.

“We’ve got to figure out how to provide permanent funding for this type of education,” Locke said.

Locke said the program should be able to grow to include all middle-level and elementary education as well.

The Commons is made possible by the K-20 network, run by the state department of information services, that provides Internet access to all schools across Washington State. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewett Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Foundation have all pledged funds for the project.

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