Monday, October 28, 2013

Schoolhouse Review Crew: Bridgeway Academy - Easy Essay Writing (High School Level)

I have mentioned my struggle with getting certain children to write in the past, and have tried several writing programs - all of them off-line up to now. I've tried co-op classes, in-home books, younger grade levels, older grade levels, and one in-house as part of a junior-high-level-boys-only group (which was a wonderful experience, but I have not seen where he is doing another right now.) On top of that, said now-teenager has expressed interest in going to a brick-and-mortar school for years, so I thought perhaps an online course might be a way for him to try out a classroom situation, while still being home and getting some writing instruction in. Enter the Schoolhouse Review Crew's offer to try out Easy Essay Writing with Mrs. Kimberly Kulp offered by Bridgeway Academy, an online homeschooling group.  

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This program is designed for students in grades 9-12, so Maestro is the only one to fit the bill, age-wise. To be honest I wasn't sure whether he would be ready to take on the responsibilities of an online class. I've been looking at the possibility for most of this year, though and thought this would be a good opportunity to find out how he'd do. Find that part out at the end of the review. Read on to find out how our experience with online learning went!

Let's start with...

What This Is: The homeschool testers were given a truncated online classroom experience through Bridgeway Academy. The normal class offers 90-minute sessions for 9 weeks; Maestro's class was 8 weeks long, with 60-minute sessions. The cost is $275 and provides 0.50 high school English credits upon completion.

Requirements: A headset with a microphone, a computer (this is Mac compatible), a streaming/fast Internet connection and a computer-based Video camera. We also made sure to have a printer, notebook, and pen on hand for off-line note taking and writing out drafts by hand, instead of always on the screen.  

The Good: In terms of giving Maestro a semi-classroom experience, where other children were involved that he had to interact with, and having homework and a syllabus to follow, this program provided a good middle-meeting ground. The teacher sent out a syllabus to the available e-mail address along with an introductory note and instructions on how to sign up for the online chalkboard classroom. I'll get into the set up in a minute. 

Maestro liked that it was not an entirely-lecture or entirely "sit down and write the answer" format. He liked that he was expected to interact with the class members and the teacher. 

The Bad: The recordings did not work, though he was told they would be. There were a few occasions where he wanted to go back and listen to what was said again for more information and something had gone wrong with the recordings so they didn't work. Maestro was frustrated by that. 

The Instructor: Maestro says she was "good" and that her instructions were clear and easy to understand. He did think she seemed to be having some technical difficulty on her end as well. He felt like he received a decent review of some things that were learned in last year's writing group, but also that she touched on some new things that he 

The Verdict: In the end of this program, I've decided that an online course is not right for us right now.  Maestro also does not want to be in all-online sessions for the time being. This course was listed for high school-level students, and though Maestro is at a high school reading and comprehension level, his overall outlook on life and on time management aren't quite there yet. 

He struggled with making sure the homework got done and turned in on time, he didn't always take notes that covered what he needed and in some ways it was a source of stress for him, and for us, to try to schedule everything else around this class and the 2-hours of computer-required homework each week. This would have been somewhat mitigated if we had separate computers for each child. 

I also found myself getting more irritated by his non-class "screen time" because after a point it seemed like he was on a screen most of his day and I began to feel pretty out of control with not knowing what was going on and how much screen time there was. I know it was study time, and I know he was (for some of it) working on class work, but I got frustrated all the same, and the younger kids didn't see the difference between class work and play work (probably because at least some of his study/homework time was given over to checking e-mail, game sites, etc - some of the same issues adults face, but still, a problem of maturity more than the class itself.)

On this whole though, I think our struggles were exacerbated by his maturity level as much as the class itself. While he is capable of the level of work, he is not quite to the point of being ready for the independence required for an online class, where Mom does not have easy access to the lecture, notes, session recordings, or work done.

Technical Thoughts: The initial e-mail gave instructions on how to set up with the Jigsaw Meeting portal. This portal is used for the virtual classroom, whiteboard, interactions, etc. 

There was a little confusion over which browser the Jigsaw program would work with - Firefox (initially recommended), or Safari (ultimately successful.) Ms. Kulp sent out more e-mails in the beginning than later on, but was available for an hour before the first class to help test out microphones, cameras, etc. and make for a smoother beginning. It didn't work. We had trouble getting just about everything to work - this may have been user error on our part, I don't know. 

The teacher's video on her end quit for a few minutes and had to be reset... In short: we had some struggles over the first two classes, which may not be a big deal for a longer course, but when there are only 8 lessons in the course, that can be a lot of lost time! 

Outside-of-class communication was also not what I would have hoped for. If you try this program out, I would strongly suggest signing up with the student's e-mail address and not the parent's. That way any communication goes directly to the student and not to the parent and things are less likely to be missed. Trying to add the student's address later does not work well at all. 

Caveat: Some of the overall technical problems I've mentioned might be fixed if the student were an enrolled Bridgeway Academy student, which we testers were not. 


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