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Online distance education is for teachers, too / September 18, 2013
Online education may become an essential part of the higher education landscape for teachers in Mecklenburg County, now that Longwood University is offering coursework at the Distance Learning Center in the MCCSC Enrichment Complex in Clarksville.

While the program is only in its first semester, already the Mecklenburg County Public School system is seeing its value, both as a recruitment tool and as a way to qualify existing teachers for hard-to-fill posts such as those in math, science, and special education.

Bob McKay, Director of the Distance Learning Center where the classes are offered, said teachers who are seeking a higher degree or certification but are limited by time, money and other responsibilities will find distance learning a convenient way to overcome their constraints.

Melody Hackney, Mecklenburg County Deputy School Superintendent, called Longwood’s program “an invaluable resource” and said that she and Superintendent James Thornton are exploring ways to promote it among the teachers in Mecklenburg County.

At the same time, Hackney is looking for ways to ease what she calls a “key barrier” to teachers pursuing higher education opportunities — money. Specifically, Hackney is looking for sources of financial aid. If more money can be found, Hackney said she would first like to offer online courses to teachers earning degrees or certifications in “hard to fill positions” — lower school and secondary math, science and special education.

“This is all very preliminary. We’re taking it slow,” said Hackney.

She shared one idea being discussed: In exchange for years of service, teachers could have all or part of their coursework paid by the school system. Again, Hackney reinforced that she and Thornton are only in the preliminary stages of discussions.

One teacher already taking advantage of Longwood’s video classes is Clarksville Elementary math teacher Mary Glenn Coleman. Coleman knew she wanted to earn a masters degree in education and was committed to driving to Farmville until she heard that she could complete some of the coursework in town.

Now, on Wednesday evenings, instead of a two-hour commute after work, Coleman simply drives across the street to her video classroom, joining classmates in Farmville and Galax.

Thanks to technology — video cameras, computers and smart boards — Coleman says she enjoys the benefits of the classroom experience, the same as if she and her classmates were in the same room with the professor.

While there are still some unknowns, such as how will the final exam be handled, Coleman, who appears to be somewhat tech-savvy, is not concerned. She already figured out the best way to transfer written assignments to her professor using a smartphone app. “We all came in proficient [in technology], and as a class we share ideas on the best way to do things,” said Coleman.

Dr. Maria Timmerman, an assistant professor of mathematics at Longwood University and the person who is teaching Coleman’s class, said it is assumed that the students have more than a minimal knowledge of technology before undertaking this particular type of distance education.

When asked if she could see this type of program being used for dual enrollment classes, Hackney responded with a quick yes: “It is a logical conversation to have — making education more convenient. In K through 12, we box our course offerings in a 200 year old schedule, when often courses need not be offered in that box.”

It makes education convenient, accessible and cost effective in rural communities, which, according to Hackney, “will make all the difference in the world.”

Hackney, who recently returned to Mecklenburg as Deputy Superintendent after a long stint as Charlotte County schools chief, has said that one of her goals is to prepare Mecklenburg County students for 21st century jobs using all necessary means. She sees this is just one more tool in her arsenal.

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Watch Longwood online or continuing ed classes. My son took one and he was away on reserve drill, his professor failed him and we had a heck of a time trying to get it reversed. If we had not had JAG to help us it probably would not have happened. I would not recommend Longwood to anyone.

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