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Live from River Hill, it's the distance learning class

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When Marriotts Ridge High School senior Min Ji Kim wants to get the teacher's attention in her differential equations class, she raises her hand. Senior Nick Giroux, worried that the teacher won't see him, sometimes waves a sheet of paper around.

J.D. Fishman, hedging all his bets, just turns on his computer's microphone and calls out for Roger Demaree.

That's because Demaree isn't in the same room with the Marriotts Ridge students. He's about 12 miles away at River Hill High School in front of a classroom full of students — students from six different high schools.

Demaree is teaching the first-ever distance learning class in the Howard County Public School System. For three periods every day, River Hill students are in the physical, brick-and-mortar classroom, and students from across the county teleconference in. Demaree's classroom is outfitted with webcams and two HDTVs, but he doesn't feel like he's surrounded by technology.

"I'm surrounded by my students," he said. "Some of the students just happen to be more remote than others."

This is the first year the higher-level math class has been available to all Howard County students, and students in every high school are taking the course. Demaree has been teaching differential equations at River Hill for 12 years, but River Hill was the only school in the county with enough student interest to warrant a class. So, students from any high school had the option of driving to River Hill for the course, or taking an evening class at Howard Community College.

With advances in technology and an increased student interest, that's different now. Both Wilde Lake and Atholton high schools this year joined River Hill in offering a differential equation class for students who either passed or are currently taking Calculus 2. All told, about 70 students in Howard County are taking the course this year, and Demaree is teaching 50 of them. About half of those students take the class remotely. Only one student in the entire county isn't a senior.

Four of those students — Kim, Giroux, Fishman and Chen Kuo — are at Marriotts Ridge. They sit in a nearly empty classroom, supervised by teacher Kelly Rupprecht. A large portion of the screens on their laptops is occupied by Demaree's chalkboard at River Hill. They ask questions and interact with Demaree in much the same way an in-person student would, and when they ask a question or do a math problem on the board, a large portion of one of the HDTV screens in Demaree's room is occupied by their face and their work.

"I can see them and they can see me, so I can see their faces and read them, to tell if they understand what I'm doing or not," Demaree said. "If they're confused they can't hide it very well. They're not used to being challenged, not used to being confused."

Demaree described his students as "brilliant" and "top-tier," and said he doesn't want his differential equations class to act as an introduction to college-level classes. He wants it to take the place of a college course — entirely reasonable, he figures, because of the intellectual level of his students and the amount of class time they're receiving, as a college class meets once to three times a week and his students are meeting every day.

"I'm not offering this as a way to make college classes easier. This is to replace a college class, so they have credits or can test out of it," he said.

Teaching remotely "is almost not different" than traditional teaching, Demaree said. It takes a little longer to get class started while all the teleconferencing equipment boots up, but that's one of only a few differences. Demaree does have to make his tests shorter and gives more quizzes to accommodate the remote students. After all, it takes longer to upload homework or a test than just hand in a physical paper.

The students at remote sites are provided laptops and "smart pens" by the school system. The smart pens record what they're writing and uploads it directly to a computer, so when Demaree checks his students' work, he sees it in their handwriting.

"Doing math in pen is probably the most nerve-wracking," said Marriotts Ridge student Giroux. "I'll do everything in pencil then write over it. If I mess up in pen and scratch it out and make a mess, I kind of want to write an 'I'm sorry' note in the margins."

And when there's a glitch — slow internet, a lagging webcam — Demaree and his students roll with it. All three periods of the classes are recorded and stored online, so if the recording of one class is of a poor quality, students can refer to another class's video. Taking the class remotely means students have more flexibility, Demaree said, like "showing up" to class while traveling or home sick, or watching the class later if they can't make it at all.

The remote students at Marriotts Ridge said they enjoyed the distance learning experience, but while they still talk and banter with Demaree as they would in a traditional class, some feel there's still something missing.

There still are things a computer and webcam can't do, can't replicate, Fishman said.

"I miss the connection with the teacher," Fishman said. "Not on the academic level — I still feel that I'm learning fine — but on a personal level. Like, I can't say 'hi' to him in the hallway or connect with him personally. I learn best when I'm connecting with the teacher."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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