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John A. Logan provides new opportunities to rural schools via 'virtual classroom'
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John A. Logan provides new opportunities to rural schools via 'virtual classroom'

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CAMPBELL HILL — “Trico, do you have the worksheet?”

Their microphone muted, students Shealee Swisher and Jasmine Serr silently raise a thumbs-up to the webcam before them.

The instructor on the big-screen monitor, broadcasting from John A. Logan Community College, 35 miles away, nods and begins her Spanish 102 lesson, diagramming sentences with action verbs and direct object pronouns.

This “virtual classroom” can be a challenging place to learn a foreign language, Swisher and Serr agreed.

They get few opportunities to practice speaking directly with the teacher and have only each other for help with worksheets. Announcements blare over the school intercom, drowning out the lesson, and brief internet glitches are a frequent frustration.

But the class is well worth their time, the young women agree.

“I really like that we have this opportunity,” said Serr, a senior. “I’d always wanted to take foreign language classes but we didn’t have them, so it was like: ‘I guess I’ll have to wait ‘til college. Now I don’t have to wait’”

For years, Trico, a small school in rural northern Jackson County, has struggled to find a qualified Spanish teacher, said Principal Mark Riley.

It’s a challenge faced at high schools throughout downstate Illinois, where unfilled bilingual and foreign language teaching jobs make up a significant portion of the mounting teacher shortage.

This year, for the first time, John A. Logan College is providing Spanish via videoconference to three local high schools without instructors of their own: Trico, Elverado and Crab Orchard.

With a $50,000 grant from the Illinois Community College Board, the college has provided a webcam and big-screen monitor to each of the schools, plus another set for the teacher, in a classroom on the college’s Carterville campus.

The instructor teaches students from all three high schools simultaneously, plus a room full of her own community college students, every morning from 8 to 8:50 a.m.

As she moves through the lesson, she looks into the webcam frequently to check in with her high schoolers, making sure each classroom is keeping up.

Students can ask questions or request help through their school’s feed at any time, though mostly they keep their microphones silenced, to limit distracting noise.

For much of the class, the screen at Trico shows the instructor at another screen — a high tech whiteboard that she writes on with a stylus.

Serr and Swisher follow the lesson on their worksheets and check vocabulary on their school laptops.

Neither appears distracted by the technology humming all around them.

“I’m comfortable with it,” Serr said. “Maybe it’s just because of my age.”

Trico announced the opportunity for Spanish dual credit to all of its students, Riley said, with a special focus on upperclassmen, who have time for electives.

“We definitely attempted to sell it to our student body as an opportunity for experimental learning,” Riley said. “The individuals who took advantage tend to be self-motivated people who saw a challenge and went for it.”

Eight students signed up for Spanish 101 in the fall, despite it being essentially an early bird, Riley said, as Trico, unlike other area schools, has an 8:30 a.m. start time.

Enrollment was 39 students across the participating high schools, in the fall.

Four of the eight Trico students chose to continue to Spanish 102, this spring. The rest are taking other online dual credit courses instead.

Serr, a senior, is studying Spanish for her best friend.

“She’s Mexican and I just really want to learn Spanish for her family,” she said. “I’ve also thought of minoring in Spanish or Latin American Studies in college.”

Swisher, a sophomore, hopes to do missionary work abroad one day.

Both young women, as well as the other high schoolers who complete the class, will receive college Spanish credit plus credit towards the high school requirement of one year of art, music, foreign language or vocational education, Riley said.

Students were charged no tuition or fees by the college, save for a small technology fee.

The grant also covered a stipend for a “classroom monitor,” a teacher or staff person who supervises the students at each high school, printing worksheets, proctoring exams and making sure the technology functions.

As with other dual credit classes, the college will receive a state reimbursement for each high school student it educates, said Stephanie Chaney-Hartford, John A. Logan’s dean of academic affairs.

Although the grant that paid for the class and equipment will be depleted this year, the college “definitely” plans to offer Spanish in the virtual classroom again next fall, Chaney-Hartford said.

“The equipment is paid for at this point,” Chaney-Hartford said. “We’ll just need to provide an instructor.”

Moving forward, the college plans to use the technology to provide other needed high school dual credit courses, especially those which schools may not have the personnel to provide, Chaney-Hartford said.

“This allows us to offer the same opportunities to more rural, lower-resourced schools that might you get at Marion, Carbondale or Carterville,” she said.

While Riley doesn’t see web-based learning as a replacement for teachers, he’s glad to know the supplement will continue to be available.

“I am very grateful for the partnership we have with John A.,” he said. “For it being the first year, there have been very few bumps in the road. I’ll be interested to see how many kids are willing to step up and take the challenge when we schedule for next year.”

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