History of Niswonger Online



“Leveling the Playing Field”
  Online and Distance Learning

Providing a broad inventory of challenging coursework is an impossible task for a small rural high school.  Larger high schools, able to offer a broad curriculum, share the struggles of small schools in catering to individual student interests and schedules.  The question to be addressed was how we could provide the same opportunities at a high school of 60 students as those provided at one with 2500 students?

With a technology infrastructure developed through the Niswonger Consortium, we have “leveled that playing field.” A more than $1.4 million investment, made possible by the (i3) grant, has propelled the Niswonger Foundation’s groundbreaking online-learning efforts to success. Now, high school students across Northeast Tennessee are fully embracing online and distance learning opportunities.

Distance Learning

Through the i3 grant funding, distance-learning laboratories, now in place at all Niswonger i3 Consortium high schools, are transporting students beyond the walls of their traditional classrooms.  All Consortium students potentially have access to any class taught in the 30 high schools.  Distance learning was piloted in some form by all of the schools over the 5 year period.  A 47 percent increase in enrollment was recorded.  Greater than 75 percent of the courses that utilized this advanced educational technology were upper-level science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Advanced Placement (AP), and career technical education (CTE) offerings.

The most success in utilizing this method of synchronous instruction was in school systems with more than one high school. The rationale for this was that schools with the same calendars and bell schedules had great success utilizing this resource for complete course delivery.  Particular success was noted with sharing the delivery of upper level coursework, which typically has lower enrollment, and, therefore, can only be taught on a limited basis.  Distance learning capability provides for more effective utilization of faculty with specialized teaching skills, and particularly serves smaller high schools that have difficulty recruiting teachers in specialized areas of instruction.  School systems noted reduced instructional costs due to the availability of the distance learning system, providing for more efficient faculty utilization.

A greater service of the distance learning system is the opportunity to allow for learning beyond the classroom with “virtual field trips.”  These live, broadband-connected video and audio feeds link students and teachers to other consortium classes and exciting learning environments like NASA, the Smithsonian Institution, zoos, art museums, clinics and laboratories to hear from specialists that the students would not otherwise be able to visit in person.

The Niswonger Consortium College and Career Counselors utilized the distance learning network to assist in college readiness efforts.  Students were able to “virtually visit” post-secondary institutions to assist in college selection.  Distance learning also assisted in workshops to provide guidance with college applications, scholarship form completion, and in the financial aid process.

Niswonger Online

 The Niswonger i3 grant provided for students in all 30 consortium high schools to have the opportunity to choose from 48 online classes.  Through Niswonger Online, Advanced Placement (AP), STEM classes, four foreign languages, career-technical education (CTE), English language arts, personal finance, and many other courses are available at all Consortium high schools.  In contrast to distance learning, Niswonger Online provides asynchronous instruction, allowing students and teachers to utilize the courses when they are needed – night, weekend, summer, or during the regular school day.

There were 426 enrollments in online classes in the 2010/11 academic year. In 2014/15 the enrollment was 3,279, a 670% increase.  The online classes afforded students the opportunity to take summer classes to get ahead in credits, or to make up credits.  With traditional course requirements completed, students had the opportunity to take additional AP, upper level foreign languages, and dual enrollment classes.  Also noted, is that the availability of online courses increased student participation in extracurricular activities like band, chorus, sports, and ROTC. Enrollment also increased in CTE and other elective courses.

The online learning experiences developed by the Niswonger Foundation bear the hallmarks of the area’s most effective educators. Their best practices and teaching techniques, video clips, texts and recorded lectures have been adapted to impact students via the web. Some courses already vetted in other areas of the country are also available to the consortium’s students through the Foundation’s membership in the National Repository of Online Courses. The Foundation has modified these selections to meet Tennessee’s educational standards and graduation requirements.

Under the guidance of trained facilitators and proctors, students work through Niswonger Online courses at their own pace. This hands-on experience has proved to enhance students’ computer literacy — a critically important skill for post-secondary readiness.  This online opportunity has also proved to be a valuable tool for personalizing learning experiences for under-represented and at-risk students.

One counselor relayed the story of an economically disadvantaged teenager deemed at-risk for dropping out prior to high school graduation. After learning about Niswonger Online, the student began staying after school to complete extra courses to fulfill graduation requirements. After successfully earning credits through Niswonger Online, she then made plans to persist through graduation and pursue post-secondary certification as a nursing assistant. “I believe that the alternative environment of online classes provided her the opportunity to be successful that didn’t exist before, and it certainly has positively impacted her life in ways far beyond academics,” the student’s i3 College and Career counselor reported.

Because of the overwhelming success and high demand of the online program, the Niswonger Foundation in partnership with the Consortium schools will sustain the online program. For just a minimum seat fee, all Niswonger i3 Consortium high schools will continue to provide students with their choices from among 40 Niswonger Online courses.


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