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Distance Learning as a Backup

A community college's distance learning program also serves those who would otherwise stop out

by Lauri McLellan Schoneck
Adults interested in receiving a State of Florida High School Diploma by passing the tests of General Educational Development (GED) in Seminole County, Florida, can attend GED classes at Seminole Community College (SCC) in Sanford, Altamonte Springs, or Oviedo. Or they can contact the SCC Adult Basic Education (ABE)/GED department and enroll in a distance learning option, now known as GED Home Study/GED Online, and bypass the traditional class room altogether. Many of the students who choose Home Study have non-traditional work schedules, no transportation options, family obligations, chronic illnesses, or a lack of the funds or the resources for childcare. Still others have never felt comfortable in a classroom setting. The flexibility of any time, any place, anywhere, and any pace is very appealing to this population of adults. Irene Paino, a GED Online instructor, explains, "About 70 percent of our Home Study enrollment is students who have sought out an alternative to the typical classroom." The low cost may also be a draw: The program is free except for the cost of the GED test, which is $50.

During its first 18 years, SCC's GED distance learning program accepted almost everyone. However, the program's lower-level students were experiencing frustration and failure; almost 60 percent dropped out each term. So, in 2003 eligibility criteria were instituted. To be eligible, SCC GED Home Study/GED Online students must score grade-level 9.0 for reading and grade-level 6.0 for math and language on Form D of the Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE). After passing the TABE test, potential students are interviewed. During the interview they learn about the participation requirements, which include completing and returning a weekly activity log, calling or e-mailing the instructor at least once a week, spending at least six hours a week on GED study activities, completing study and test packets in a timely manner, and taking semester-end TABE tests on campus. The impetus for these elements, notes Paino, is the learners' need for structure: "Students need frequent interaction with their instructors to be successful in this program." Paino believes that as a direct result of these requirements, about 20 percent of the students attempt and pass the GED test each 16-week term, receiving (according to Florida policy) a State of Florida High School Diploma.

During the interview, students are also introduced to key program features, such as GED Online, added in 2001 and used by more than half of the Home Study program, and GED on TV, which is offered through Daytona Beach Community College. (See the article on GED on TV.) As SCC students they can use SCC's disability support services; counseling and advisement center; libraries; and for help with resumes and job placements, SCC's career center. They also receive the bi-monthly GED Home Study/GED Online Newsletter, which provides reminder dates, test anxiety and preparation strategies, and practice questions and inspirational quotes. According to the Home Study coordinator, Sandra Fernandez, "Most students know [by the end of the interview] whether or not they have the self discipline to successfully participate in the program. We refer those who don't to the classroom. There are three ABE/GED outreach study centers and three campus sites across Seminole County."

One of the newer and more appealing features of GED Home Study is the GED Online program."Over 50 percent of the students that utilize our Home Study program also make use of the GED Online piece," explains Paino. Online enrollment averages 25 students per semester, with last semester having enrolled a record-breaking 37 students. GED Home Study/GED Online student Cathy Fish is excited about the downloadable study materials and worksheets, bulletin boards, instructor chats, tutoring, and other Web-based resources: "It's very beneficial to me [to have GED Online] because of the times you can use it, the programs you can get into, and the help from the coordinators, Irene Paino and Sandra Fernandez. GED Online has helped me, and my test scores are improving."

Stopping Out to Home Study

Nearly one third of the GED Home Study/GED Online program's 115 participants have come from the traditional campus classrooms. Whenever students communicate to their instructors that something has or is going to disrupt their lives, instructors can refer them to the GED Home Study/GED Online Program. Through Home Study, students can keep up with their GED studies while taking care of their immediate or imminent problems.

One such student was a young woman with an anxiety disorder. She thought she could handle being around others while participating in a class, but could not. Home Study gave her a way to prepare for her GED tests without triggering her social fears. Another student requested Home Study late in a pregnancy so she could care for her newborn and continue studying. Yet someone else severely injured his arm on the job. His instructors had him enrolled in Home Study within a day. The GED Home Study/GED Online Program is a highly regarded resource for our instructors. As an ABE/GED instructor myself, I love the fact that GED Home Study/GED Online exists. There is nothing like helping students see that they don't have to postpone their studies when circumstances prevent them from attending classes. Our best guess is that two or three students go from the classroom to Home Study and then back to the classroom each year, some because they use Home Study as a temporary solution to a life event, others because they realize that they need the classroom structure and routine.

Not Perfect

The potential of the GED Home Study/GED Online program seems limitless. In reality, SCC's Home Study program is plagued by many of the same problems that traditional classrooms face. The program now has an annual dropout rate of 40 percent. As researcher Alisa Belzer (1998) writes, "The question of how to improve student retention cannot be solved with simple or single answers. The same obstacles or supports can create different outcomes for different students. Since often many complicated and interrelated factors are involved in the decision to continue participation in a program, a simple or single solution may make no difference."

SCC's GED Home Study/GED Online Program is neither simple nor does it offer a single solution to the overwhelming challenge of adult student retention. Although the program eliminates many of the obstacles adult students face, it does not eliminate the need for motivation, self discipline, and the time needed to do the work.

Still Evolving

SCC's Home Study Program has been in place for more than 21 years. Since 2001 alone, approximately 575 students have participated. In May, 2006, the total number of students who enrolled in the combined GED Home Study/GED Online program for the 2005-06 school year, which ended the first week in August, 2006, was 89. Soon the program will undergo two more changes. The plan is to purchase the TABE online and eliminate a student's need to come to campus for basic testing. All coordination of score reports and scheduling activities will be done by e-mail or telephone to give students complete at-home service. Also, a grant recently awarded to the program by SCC's Staff and Program Development Committee will enable the GED Home Study/GED Online program to purchase and maintain a lending library. This library will allow home study students to borrow materials such as GED textbooks, calculators, and guides for using the calculators.

From its humble beginnings as an at-home study series in 1985 to the complex and comprehensive program it is now, the program will continue to grow and expand as the demand for alternatives to the traditional classroom increases in our area.

Belzer, A. (1998). "Stopping out, not dropping out." Focus On Basics, 2(A) 15-17.

About the Author
Lauri McLellan Schoneck is a professor at Seminole Community College, where she teaches ABE and GED math courses. A graduate of Florida State University, she has her master's in special education and has taught both K-12 students and adults. She is currently serving a second term on the Florida Department of Education Practitioners' Task Force on Adults with Learning Disabilities as a community college representative.