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Tuned in Distance-learning connects students to far-off classrooms

So your school lacks the certified teachers to offer abnormal psychology or anthropology, or maybe it doesn't have enough interested students to offer the Advanced Placement U.S. History class that you really wanted to ace.

If you're lucky, you just might be able to rely on "Distance Learning: Project Connect."

Sponsored by the Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, "Distance Learning: Project Connect" helps schools share resources by connecting them via television and audio technology. The teacher only needs to be at one school, and students from three other schools can "tune in" from miles away.

Offering anything from athletic training to cartooning to dairy science, film criticism to landscaping, the New York State Distance Learning Consortium is striving to give students more options than those available at their own school.

Tom Janicki, who has been broadcasting a Design in Fashion course from Gowanda High School for seven years, says BOCES started the program because "some of the smaller school districts couldn't offer the electives that were necessary for a lot of the kids."

For example, he noted that Gowanda schools "teach Seneca language because we have a large Native American population, but there are three other schools that tap into [the class] that have Seneca language students and of course, how many teachers are going to be certified in Seneca language?"

Janicki noted the difficulties of teaching Design in Fashion, which is essentially an art class, from a distance. "I have to adjust [projects] to fit the classroom because we don't have access to all the art supplies and things."

Students in his design class, however, don't seem to mind.

"I think it is cool that you get to see other kids from other schools," said Alexandra Omicioli, a Gowanda senior. She also takes a Pre-Veterinary Distance Learning course where the teacher is from Pioneer High School.

It is in her Pre-Vet class that she sees the expected drawbacks of the Distance Learning Program. Sometimes [our Pre-Vet teacher] will make us photocopy our homework and fax it over. It can be a hassle, but it's not that bad." Students also take faxed tests. And, Alexandra adds, "It takes longer to get grades."

Teaching non-art classes over the Distance Learning Program can be difficult as well. Gary Witek, a teacher at City Honors, broadcasts AP Calculus to students at Bennett High School as well as Franklinville. The class is during "ninth" period -- first thing in the morning.

"It's really tough to start doing calculus at 7:30 in the morning," Witek says. The class is held so early in order to accommodate students who would not otherwise have room in their schedules.

Broadcasting a math class poses particular challenges.

"You have a very small limited screen that people can digitally see, so where you're used to seeing an entire board of material, now you're only seeing a small snapshot -- if you zoom out to show [the big picture] then the writing is way too small for the students to see. So you have to go at a slower pace to show the problems," Witek added.

However, the program is not all bad. Witek feels that Distance Learning is valuable to students, and not just educationally. "People from the different sites interface with each other and [the Distance Learning Program] shows that kids in different schools are all the same. If they have a desire to learn, they will do the work and learn no matter what time of the day it is," he said.

Overall, the Distance Learning Program gives students an opportunity they would not otherwise have. "You learn to be more independent," says Alexandra. And whether students seize the opportunity to take funky art classes not offered at their school or to get college credit, the program supports self-motivated students who are looking to challenge themselves further.
Enrollment in a Distance Learning Program depends on whether your school has the technology to connect to the network, whether the class you want is offered at a time that fits into your schedule and whether enough students at your school sign up for the class.

For more information, talk to your guidance counselor or visit www.nysdlc.org.

Maria Forti is a senior at City Honors.

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