The Way We Teach

The Way We Teach

A series of articles and posts about the academic program at Miss Hall's School.

Online Learning Opportunities at Miss Hall's

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the MHS Magazine. Read the full issue here.

Expanding the Walls of the Classroom
Some of the newest courses offered to Miss Hall’s School students aren’t physically at Miss Hall’s at all. Rather, eleven students this year are studying in a virtual learning space in online classes, piloting new learning opportunities beyond the walls of MHS. On the surface, it may appear that the online approach is not fully aligned with the mission of a school in which student-faculty connections are central to the environment. However, it is clear, based on recent statistics, practices in higher education, and the experience of our girls, that online learning supports the competencies of voice, gumption, and interpersonal efficacy that we deeply support at MHS. 
Further, it is also clear that online learning is an essential element of the 21st century educational experience. Recent research supports this claim. As Anuli Akanegbu, a new media writer for EdTech magazine states:
 
“Distance and online learning are a big deal in higher education. Not only are more students taking online classes at traditional four-year colleges, but also the rise of innovative for-profit online schools is changing the landscape. We all know it’s happening, but now we can quantify the affect of online learning with these . . . striking statistics:
 
  • 71 percent of leaders of for-profit colleges and universities report that their institutions offer classes online, and more than half (54 percent) say these classes offer the same value as classes taken in person.
  • 88 percent of residential colleges and universities offer online courses to students who live on campus.
  • 50 percent of college presidents predict that 10 years from now most of their students will take classes online.”1
 
Currently, eleven MHS students are taking yearlong courses through the Online School for Girls (OSG), a consortium of schools dedicated to creating single-gender online courses, and the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY), an academic center within Johns Hopkins University. The girls are enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) Art History, AP Music Theory, AP Psychology, and AP Macroeconomics, courses currently not offered at MHS. The expansion of educational opportunities is but one advantage of offering online options, explains Dean of Academics and Faculty Elizabeth F. Cleary. “These courses are not meant to supplant the traditional classroom experience, but rather to enhance opportunities for students,” notes Dean Cleary, adding that students cannot enroll in an online course if it is offered in the Miss Hall’s curriculum. “Online learning allows students to stretch themselves academically by giving them an opportunity to take a higher-level elective or an AP course that we don’t currently offer. It also enables girls to engage in meaningful interactive dialogue with students within the United States and from around the world. There is also the added bonus of the empowerment the girls develop while learning the skill of navigating their own learning.”
 
Indeed, students in the classes report that the experience has helped improve not only their time-management, study skills, and self-direction but also their level of independence. “Since there is not a teacher to tell me to do my homework or to take a test, it is a very independent, selfmotivating course,” reports Sueann Lee ’17, who credits her online AP Psychology course with also helping to build her perseverance. “I have to schedule my exams, make sure to do my homework every night, and be on top of getting prepared for the final exam. I also don’t have someone to constantly ask if I have a question about the subject matter, so I have to ask the teacher about specific questions I have.”
 
Hanwen Zhang ’16, who is enrolled in AP Music Theory, also speaks to the important skills she has acquired since beginning her courses in both OSG and CTY. Hanwen adds that she also saves a lot of time because of the online arrangement, and she appreciates that she can dive right into an assignment if she grasps the material quickly. At other times, she can spend more time gaining an understanding of particular concepts before tackling an assignment. “Sometimes I really do not need to go over the examples again and again, while sometimes it is really helpful to learn more,” Hanwen explains. “The option to choose whether I want to spend more time on each chapter is really flexible.” This flexibility is something the students appreciate, most notably with fitting the online coursework into their already busy MHS schedules. Moreover, the asynchronous environment allows girls to make choices about their learning. “The best part of the class is being able to attend the class when I want to,” notes AP Art History student Marianne Vormer ’17. “Since I don’t have a certain time to be in class everyday, I can do that work whenever I feel like I want or need to. I also love going really deep into the material that we are studying and being with other students who are as passionate about art as I am.”
 
As with any new venture, there have been some hurdles, Dean Cleary notes. It has taken some students time to adjust to a course without daily classroom interaction with a teacher and learning things such as how to log onto Google Hangouts (Google’s communications tool that includes instant messaging, video chat, and other features), how to upload an MP3 file, or how to convert a zip file to a PDF presented early challenges in the first weeks. Some also needed to learn the key skill of selfadvocacy as they established relationships with their online teachers. Overall, however, the students note that they are happy with the frequency and quality of communication from instructors. Though some participants have reported less interaction with classmates than in a traditional classroom setting, others have had more in-depth online conversations with fellow students, because they share a particular interest in the class subject.
 
Students have also reported that the experience has improved their familiarity with online platforms such as Haiku (the online Learning Management System), Skype, and Google Hangouts. Though the girls are largely responsible for their online experience, they are not entirely on their own. Dean Cleary meets with them weekly to check in on their progress, learn of any issues, and help the students work through struggles they might be having.
 
Going forward, Dean Cleary adds, MHS students will likely have to apply to participate in online courses, with decisions made in consultation with advisors, teachers, and department heads. Furthermore, the largely self-directed format, she points out, is not for every student. The pace and workload are heavy and do not include the typical breaks offered in the academic calendar. “Like our traditional MHS courses, these courses are challenging, and a big part of student success is self-advocacy—being willing to get online and communicate with the teacher when you’re having issues,” Dean Cleary adds. Currently, online course offerings are only open to juniors and seniors to prepare for online learning expectations that they are likely to encounter in college. “Education has never been changing faster than it is now, and the digital revolution has significant implications for a school like Miss Hall’s,” notes Dean Cleary. “As online course offerings grow, students will have the opportunity to blend their coursework with both online and live classes to open up new avenues to learning.”
 
Sueann hopes that is the case. “This course has truly expanded my concept of learning,” she says. “When I think of learning, I picture a traditional image of a student and a teacher sitting in a room and learning the material. However, now I understand that learning can also happen online and it can also be interactive, just like being in a class. I hope that in college, there will be programs conducted online, because it is going very well for me.”

1 Akanegbu, Anuli. “50 Striking Statistics About Distance Learning in Higher Education.” EdTechmagazine.com. CDW, 12 July 2012. Web. 21 Dec. 2015.
 
Editor’s Note: Dean of Academics and Faculty Elizabeth F. Cleary contributed to this article.
“Online learning... enables girls to engage in meaningful interactive dialogue with students within the United States and from around the world. There is also the added bonus of the empowerment the girls develop while learning the skill of navigating their own learning.” - Dean of Academics and Faculty Elizabeth F. Cleary
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Located in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, Miss Hall's School is an all girls private, college preparatory boarding and day high school for grades 9-12.
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