When Kelli Spearman's fifth-grade class receives assignments, they don't always come through the traditional means.
And they don't always come from her.
Her Riverside Elementary pupils are part of a virtual classroom, connected with teachers and pupils in England and Australia through a program sponsored by AT&T.
It's the second year Miss Spearman has been involved in the program, which uses computer technology to share projects and assignments with schools in other countries. The Columbia County teacher has been so thrilled with the experience she said she hopes to participate again next year and even wants to pursue online doctoral courses for herself.
"The kids are in charge of a lot while we guide," Ms. Spearman said. "Just think of the communication going on here."
The virtual class at Riverside is one example of computer technology changing how education is delivered, with pupils from elementary school to college taking advantage of the flexibility and choices offered through the Internet.
Although computers might never take the place of traditional classrooms, using online courses as a supplement is gaining momentum.
"I'll go as far as to predict online learning will become a core part of every person's learning experience," said Greg Morse, president of Intelligent Education Inc., an online school in Roswell, Ga. "To me, it makes perfect sense."
The Roswell school piloted its program this year and will formally launch its courses in the summer. With fewer than 20 pupils, it has catered to those who are homebound or travel more than average pupils.
"What online learning does in the appropriate setting, ... it can be an agent of freedom if you will," Mr. Morse said.
Even the Georgia Department of Education recognizes the potential.
This school year, Georgia began participating in a Virtual High School consortium. The consortium -- based in Concord, Mass. -- covers 29 states and six countries. It offers electives with 20 students in a class, but those involved say they eventually hope to offer credit for core academic courses.
"More and more, we are providing more mainline courses," said Kristin Barr, project coordinator of Virtual High School.
No longer confined to a 55-minute class, pupils of online courses can pace themselves to some degree. They still have hands-on projects, tests and quizzes as they would in a regular classroom. But teachers and pupils can work and communicate outside the normal school day via e-mail.
The consortium offers 87 courses ranging from aeronautics and space travel to Spanish. Next year, Ms. Barr said, it will offer 196 courses and is recruiting teachers for courses in higher demand. The most popular areas are computer programming, advanced placement and career preparatory, she said.
Georgia offers 15 online courses and ranks third in the consortium for the number it provides, said Kay Wideman, assistant curriculum director for the Georgia Department of Education. There are 282 students in Georgia registered in the Virtual High School consortium, and next year the state will be eligible to register 620 students.
Soon, Dr. Wideman said, the state hopes to provide virtual learning in core academic areas for Georgia students. The online courses could help school districts or smaller schools that have difficulty finding teachers in certain subject areas or want to offer more classes, Dr. Wideman said.
"I don't know that virtual learning is for every student," she said. "I certainly think it needs to be an option."
Patrick McCollum, a teacher at Crossroads Academy in Columbia County, teaches Visual Basic 6.0 for the consortium. The computer programming course has been one of the most popular in the consortium.
"It's actually exceeded my expectations," Mr. McCollum said.
At Crossroads, the virtual classes have been especially beneficial because the school's limited staff and smaller pupil population might not allow certain courses to be offered, said Karen Fischer, the virtual site coordinator for Crossroads.
"I think it's going to do nothing but grow," Ms. Fischer said. "You can get on and take these and you don't have to be a computer whiz."
Peggy Ussery at (706) 868-1222,
Ext. 112, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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