Students take ag through online academyWritten by Christy Martinez
Teacher and academy founder LeRoy Nelson says he started thinking about the concept for online ag education about 10 years ago, but he kept the idea in the back of his mind for a while, until technology was capable of doing what he imagined. He started the online school in December 2009, with classes beginning in Fall 2010.
“I had so many kids who told me that, if they had access to ag education and FFA, they’d love to participate. There were so many kids who didn’t get a chance – 90 schools in Montana don’t have ag, and it looks like 30 or 40 schools in Wyoming,” says Nelson.
He says he didn’t count on starting an online FFA chapter right away, but of his 60 students who are taking courses, 15 to 20 of them are already in a newly chartered virtual FFA chapter.
“So many kids asked about FFA that I got together with our state advisor in Montana and he went to bat for us and went to the national association to ask for a charter,” says Nelson.
Many of Nelson’s students come from around the country, including North Carolina, Michigan and northern California, and Nelson says he’s working on a way for them to be involved in FFA. Currently his FFA kids all live within Montana.
“Even here in Montana we’re 300 or 400 miles apart,” he comments. “Our monthly meetings are online. The kids use Skype, and we have a regular agenda and officers.”
Nelson says that, annually, there are four or five events the chapter attends together, and those are their face-to-face meetings, and also where Nelson helps prepare the students for competition.
“Even though we’re separated by distance, when we meet for those few competitions it’s valuable time, and we spend time getting kids ready,” he says.
Nelson says his courses have increased in number over the three semesters that classes have been in session, and they continue to build.
“I started with three courses – basic animal science, a plant science course and farm business management,” he says. “I decide which classes to teach by surveying students to find out what they want, and then I start building. I plan to offer 14 to 15 courses when it’s all said and done.”
He adds that the biggest difference between teaching online and in a classroom is making the information accessible for students. He uses Montana Digital Academy’s platform, which sets out units with 16 to 18 units per class, and he uses e-readings.
“The students don’t buy textbooks, and there are terminology exercises and a lot of video,” he explains. “We do forums for class discussion, some blogging, and every unit has an assignment to be done online. Also, depending on the class, most have one or two projects for the 18-week semester.”
When Nelson completes a course he adds it to his rotation. Right now he’s the only teacher, but he says that, depending on what happens, if he gets enough students he’ll bring on other teachers who are interested educating through the online format. If that happens, Nelson says he’ll be able to offer more classes.
Nelson’s unit assignments that are true/false or multiple choice are graded by software, but he says he does spend the usual time grading project work and the forums.
“I spend a lot of my time on a few things – writing the course work, answering emails and calls from students and evaluating the courses and corresponding with administrators and students about their grades.”
A limitation to online classes is internet access and speed.
“I have to watch out for the ability of my students’ internet access,” says Nelson. “I do quite a bit of podcasting and I use a lot of videos, and I have to make sure I don’t do something too advanced.”
Nelson says he uses Ag Ed Net for his videos.
“They’re a company that provides curriculum, and I purchase the rights to their curriculum and use their videos and resources along with things I’ve written,” he says, adding, “The government, university extension services and USDA also have good information that I use.”
While 80 to 85 percent of the online academy’s students attend public schools, Nelson says he does have a good distribution.
“Some schools support the students and pay their tuition, and give them time to work on the classes during the school day, while other students do their work after hours. I’ve also got a number of homeschool and private school students,” he notes. “The whole idea was to offer these courses to kids who don’t have a chance to get ag education.”
Nelson notes that some of his students have been with him since the beginning and are starting their fourth semester with the academy.
“I generally only lose them to graduation,” he says. “The kids stick with me, and 90-some percent are taking courses with me again this spring.”
“I’m trying to get the word out, and I get a lot of calls from people who found the website or heard about the classes, so I’m trying to get the word out so kids can take advantage of this,” he says.
In addition to his young students, Nelson is also opening his classes to adult students, and is working on putting together a certification program for continuing education, which means a certificate right now, but Nelson says he’s working on accreditation.
“It’s online, and it’s flexible,” says Nelson of his program. “Students work at their own pace – when I open a course all the units are listed, and I don’t care if they move ahead of me.”
Nelson encourages anyone who’s interested to visit his website to review the courses, their descriptions and titles and contact him through the website, phone or email.