Lori Wagner calls on her students, one by one, to figure out the math problem she has presented them with.
“What happens when I take that x out of the x-squared?” she asks.
After a pause, one of the high schoolers responds in a manner more resembling a question. “There’s an x left over?”
“That’s exactly right!” Wagner praises and calls on another to solve the next problem.
It’s like any typical high school Algebra II class – except for the fact that Wagner and her students aren’t in the same place and they’re looking at each other on a screen from their respective locations.
Wagner is sitting in the basement of her Webster home in her “studio” and looking into a camera as she speaks. There are two computer screens on the desk in front of her – one of the screens contains the moving image of the high schoolers she’s teaching in their classroom at Waubay; the other shows the math problems she’s drawing out for the kids via a second screen in their classroom.
This is just one of many schools at which Wagner teaches through such a method.
Wagner, 51 is a “master teacher” through Northern State University’s expanded Desire2Learn program, a distance learning system of core high school classes taught over the internet.
Across town, a similar scenario is playing out in the home of Megan Baule, 38. She teaches eight or nine English classes per day at schools all across the state.
They’re both fulfilling a void in the state’s education system due to a lack of teachers.
While the e-learning program has been going on at Northern since 2001, according to Baule, it’s just been within the last two years that the state legislature has provided money to the program to expand it to include more core curriculum high school classes such as mathematics and language arts.
According to a study by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, South Dakota has been decreased from “high needs” in the area of math and it is suggested that the trend could be linked to what it called “the state’s deployment of innovative educational models.”
From her position on the State Board of Education, Wagner said that means the expansion of the e-learning center.
“I think it’s huge for schools that are having trouble finding teachers,” Baule said. “Instead of having someone who might not be qualified in the classroom just filling in, instead of patching, we are actually structuring education for students.”
Through this system, Wagner and Baule each teach at about 11 different schools through a mixture of “DDN” and “blended” learning styles which is a combination of live and pre-recorded video sessions; the DDN is when three classrooms join in at the same time, five days a week, for a live lesson.
“It really seems like an answer for a lot of these small schools that can’t seem to get a qualified teacher. They’re getting a master-certified teacher in their classroom for no cost to their school district,” Wagner said. “I think this just fills a void that is there because of the circumstances of not many people wanting to go into the teaching field.”
Baule started the year teaching at 14 schools; she’s down to 11 due to some of those filling their teaching positions in the middle of the year.
“Community members still want a teacher in the classroom,” she said. “They want somebody there with their kids. We don’t seek to replace those teachers in schools. We just are there to help those schools, to fill those positions.”
Although they are not intending to take jobs away or permanently fill this void, they do see benefits for the students.
For example, since all of the classes are either pre-recorded or recorded live and are available online, if a student misses a class –say, due to sickness, a school or family event – or if school is called off because of a blizzard, they are able to catch up on the lessons by accessing them from home.
“It’s teaching them (students) responsibility. It’s raising the bar on the responsibility level,” Wagner said.
Baule added, “The other thing is this is providing an opportunity for students to be self-motivated. They have to be self-motivated and monitor themselves and their own work a certain amount because we aren’t in the classroom every day.”
Generally, schools provide e-mentors on-site who monitor the classroom and keep order.
“A big part of the success of this program is just having really good e-mentors,” Wagner said. “The e-mentor is the person sitting in the classroom with those students. Without them, this would be a really tough job.”
While those individuals’ qualifications vary by school – some are certified teachers and others are paraprofessionals – Baule said the bottom line is it has to be someone who truly cares about the students and who wants to see them succeed.
“That is the key, is having people at the school who want them to succeed,” Baule said.
For students taking these courses, Baule said they have a leg-up when they go to college since the distance education is structured similarly to many online classes colleges now provide.
Twice a year, “master teachers” will travel to the schools they’re teaching at to give a live lesson. Wagner said she’s driven as far as Wall before.
“Those visits at the schools are really a key piece,” Wagner said. “You walk into those schools and those kids just sort of look at you like, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect to see you so tall,’ or ‘I didn’t expect to see you so’ this or that. That really puts a personal touch (on it).”
Baule said it’s important for them as teachers to see and understand the school culture and watch how students interact with one another. It helps foster a relationship with their students they could otherwise miss out on.
Wagner admitted that she was initially worried about building relationships with her students.
“But that’s not the case at all. I almost know my students better because I’m one-on-one, or one-on-five with some of my classes,” she said. “I really get to know them and their schedules and what they’re involved in. I tell them when I go out to visit, ‘whatever you want to know about me, let me know.’ It really opens doors and is probably as solid a relationship with students as when I was in the classroom.”
“As soon as you walk in the room, they know you’re a real person,” Baule agreed. “Sometimes I think when we’re in a new community that hasn’t had a lot to do with our program, there is some apprehension from community members because they’re afraid students are being taught by a robot or something.”
Besides, technology comes with it’s own limitations.
“There’s not a technology correction for correcting an essay, there’s not a technology correction for showing work on a math problem,” Wagner said. ‘
For that, it still takes a human being.