Ballard schools navigate tricky waters of postsecondary online learning

Andrew Gogerty For the Tri-County
Times

How good is the instruction Ballard students are receiving in online courses from community colleges and other colleges and universities? Is the exam process structured enough to ensure students aren’t cheating? How does it affect current high school teachers whose courses these students could be taking in their own classrooms? How does it affect future hiring decisions by the district? These are all questions that were discussed at last week’s meeting of the Ballard school board.

The discussion stemmed from questions at the August board meeting surrounding the district’s policy on postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO) and concurrent enrollment.

According to a report given by Superintendent Ottie Maxey, state legislation was passed in 2016 which explains that a school “can’t enroll a student in postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO) for a course that is contracted with community college through concurrent enrollment.”

As an example, if a student wants to take a course at Iowa State University that is currently one of the contracted courses between Ballard and Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), it would not be allowed.

This has led administration and the board to question which courses should be offered by the district at DMACC and caused a deeper dive into the topic which has also raised numerous concerns.

The district wishes to offer as many classes as possible (both in-house and externally) for college credit, but realizes limitations in the number of courses that can realistically be offered, as well as the requirements to have teachers who are qualified with master’s degrees to teach them.

“We obviously can’t offer everything,” said Board President Steve Domino. “At the same time, knowing that this opportunity exists, as long as it prepares the student for the next stage, we can’t just say no to that.”

Another sticky topic arises when there are classes that Ballard offers and similar ones that are offered through concurrent enrollment. There is a reasonable bias from Ballard instructors toward wanting their own students in their classrooms, rather than online from a postsecondary school.

“I think it’s a balance between offering our kids post-secondary options, but at the same time making sure we are fulfilling our responsibilities to prepare kids for wherever they go beyond here,” said Katie Claeys, Director of Teaching and Learning. “We have a bias toward wanting kids to be in front of our instructors and would like to see as much offered in-house for secondary as possible. It’s just kind of messy.”

Maxey expressed concerns on behalf of some of the Ballard teachers regarding the postsecondary online learning environment. One of the main concerns is the belief that some classes give exams that are not required to be proctored or taken on lock-down browsers, which can result in cheating. Maxey said issues like these raise concerns about the educative nature of those classes. There are also concerns from current Ballard teachers that students are not getting the support from their online teachers and are instead coming to them for assistance with an online course—many of which could be taken in-person at Ballard.

Board member Darin Wohlgemuth illustrated a different viewpoint in the online learning courses he has observed with his own children.

“My observation with the exams with my own kids was that the exams were done on lockdown browsers,” said Wohlgemuth. “I would say the Econ course that my son took online was using the same textbook that some of the professors use at Iowa State University, so content-wise, I would say it aligned very well. The quality of lecture was fine.”

The trend of more and more students taking online courses raised an additional question regarding future hiring strategies of the board and the district.

“The other question I have is, when we have the opportunity to bring on new teachers in the future, can we recruit, intentionally, someone who has credentials to teach postsecondary classes?” Wohlgemuth said.

Maxey said he believes that is a good strategy, but that there is a delicate balancing act the district must consider.

“As a small district, I think we strategically need to pursue that, but we also need to pursue people who will be willing to lead programs and coach,” Maxey said. “We just need folks that are willing to wear a lot of hats.”

Board member Brandee Gatchel said she wants to make sure the district is doing everything it can to equip current teachers with the ability to become qualified to teach postsecondary courses.

“Along those same lines, are we doing everything we can to make sure that if we have teachers here that are wanting to pursue the extra credit that they need, that we are supportive of that?” Gatchel said.

Maxey ensured the board that those opportunities are available and gave some specific examples of current teachers who have pursued the additional graduate work necessary to become qualified in their field of study. He also mentioned that some areas of study require a large amount of additional credits in order to become qualified, and that the process is cumbersome and requires a large dedication of time on the part of the teacher.

More discussion about PSEO and concurrent enrollment is slated for November’s board meeting.

“We are taking this process seriously, and we want to make recommendations to our board that we feel good about because we take very seriously preparing kids for what they are going to do next,” he said.

In other matters the board:

  • Approved a revised superintendent contract from a one-year contract to a three-year contract. The approval includes a 2.64 percent package increase for the current fiscal year.
  • Received an update was given on the construction progress for the Ballard Middle School renovation. Locker rooms, the fitness center, and the health room should be finished in the next couple of weeks. The gymnasium should be finished by mid-October, and the cafeteria addition should be finished sometime in November.