The Gwinnett Online Campus is a charter school serving over 300 students from grades 4-12 taking full-time classes, and an additional 750 students attending other Gwinnett County schools, but taking some courses online. While most coursework is available online and taken when it is most convenient for the student, classes in grades 4-8 have one class session each week that must be taken in real time, either online or at the campus. All students must visit the campus for lab sessions and tests.
The campus is located in a renovated elementary school in Lawrenceville. What used to be the media center is now the productivity center. It has no books, since everything is online, but it does have study and discussion areas that resemble what one might see at UGA. There’s no need for a cafeteria, so that area was transformed into an auditorium. Classrooms have TV screens and electronic whiteboards, along with cameras and microphones, so students at home can participate in the classroom discussion. Closets that used to hold supplies now hold racks of routers and cables. About the only things resembling a traditional classroom are the labs for biology and chemistry.
The school follows an entrepreneurial model. The school’s principal, Dr. Christopher Ray, says Gwinnett School Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks gave him wide latitude to develop an effective online learning model that emphasizes teaching and learning. And, without the distractions of school buses, crowded lunchrooms or the discipline problems that take up quite a bit of a traditional principal’s time, that’s exactly what he’s done. Each of the school’s teachers works with about 150 students, spread across the classes they teach.
The Principal’s Cabinet, about a dozen administrators with responsibilities for everything from course planning to information technology, meets weekly. At a recent meeting, discussion ranged from planning for summer school, when an estimated 2,000 students will take classes, to figuring out the best way to light the interactive classrooms so students at home would have a clear picture of what was going on. They also discussed how to better market the school’s programs to more students. With a capacity of 1,000 full time students, there is room to grow.
Students attend the online campus for a variety of reasons. Some simply prefer the online learning experience to the traditional classroom experience. Some like it because they can study in the evenings and work or do other things during the day. And still others take additional classes online so they can complete high school in three years instead of four.
The school is a model for what twenty-first century education can become. Right now, it costs more to educate a student online than it does to educate him or her in a traditional classroom setting. This is partly because the staff spends a lot of time developing best practices for online learning, and partially because the school is not operating to capacity. However, both of these problems will resolve themselves over time.
Funding for education is always a hot topic in the Georgia legislature, and the 2014 session is expected to be no different. Governor Deal has already announced he is willing to revisit the QBE formula for state funding of schools. Maybe the legislature should also have a discussion about alternatives to traditional classroom education that work better in today’s connected world. Looking at what is happening at the Gwinnett Online Campus would be a good place to start.