Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Teen smoking declines but remains a concern

Capital News Service

LANSING—Since the early 1990s, teenage smoking has declined nationally, and one expert attributes the trend to rising prices and changing social norms.

In 1991, the percentage of high school students who ever smoked cigarettes was 70.1 and decreased to 46.3 in 2009, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

The portion of high school students who were frequent cigarette users dropped from 12.7 percent in 1991 to 7.3 percent last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2009 in Michigan, 18.8 percent of high school students smoked at least occasionally, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

Kenneth Warner, dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said, “The single most important manipulable variable is price.”

He said he expected teen smoking would drop in 2009 because of a 61-cent federal tax increase per pack of 20 cigarettes.

The next key variable, Warner said, is the anti-smoking “truth campaign” run by the American Legacy Foundation. It was created under an agreement with the tobacco companies to help teens change their thinking about tobacco.

“The truth campaign worked,” Warner said. “The campaign was oriented to target younger teens, 13 to 15, not looking to those 18 to 19, but it did reach them.” The legal smoking age in Michigan  is 18.

One principle was to never lecture but to have teens understand how the tobacco industry was trying to use them, said Warner.

“It’s a matter of changing the norms,” Warner said. “The truth campaign was like advertisements of other products, like soft drinks or sneakers, but instead of a product, it advertised an idea of not smoking.”

Funding for the truth campaign from the tobacco industry ended after five years.

Tobacco companies are still under scrutiny, Warner said.

“Tobacco advertising is watched very closely.  The ‘Joe Camel’ campaign was targeted to kids and young teens — they used to call them ‘young adults,’ but really they were kids.  In the late ‘90s, they were forced to stop ‘Joe Camel’ ads,” which also contributed to the decline in teen smoking, said Warner.

Janet Olsen, program leader with Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development, focuses on health and nutrition and improving social and emotional development for youth.

Her organization offers an anti-smoking curriculum for youth groups and for online use called “Life’s A Kick! Don’t Start Tobacco.”

“When it was developing there were funds for it to be like an anti-tobacco campaign” but it’s now a curriculum, said Olsen.

“After-school programs would have used it with 4-H groups around the state,” said Olsen.

“When it was developing, there was implementation.  When the funding was readily available, staff was piloting it around the state,” she said.

“It’s not that we are not interested in anti-tobacco issues — if other 4-H volunteers are interested in using the curriculum, then absolutely! But it just hasn’t been a dedicated focus.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.




Filed under: Social Policy

State pushes green initiatives for local communities

Capital News Service

LANSING—A set of initiatives by the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth is making it easier for communities to go green.

Jeff Spencer, Green Communities Coordinator for the department, said the idea started a year and a half ago in collaboration with the Michigan Municipal League, Michigan Townships Association and Michigan Association of Counties.

Spencer said the main objective of the Green Communities Challenge is to encourage all communities to become more energy-efficient through local government operations.

The program also provides information to communities and shares ideas to assist them in becoming green, he added.

Eighty-five localities now participate, including Traverse City, Emmet County, Alpena County, Charlevoix, Detroit, East Lansing, Grand Rapids and Muskegon County, he said.

Its goals include developing recycling and household hazardous waste programs for residents and businesses, developing a policy to use energy-efficient and dark sky-compliant outdoor lighting and helping residents replace older air conditioning and refrigeration units with more efficient models.

Other goals include providing employee benefits for ride sharing, walking, biking or taking public transit to work, starting programs to educate employees about environment and energy conservation and informing institutions and industries about ways to reduce energy consumption.

Russ Soyring, director of planning for Traverse City, said his city used its $100,000 grant for planning.

“The parts of the city we are using it in have great potential for energy efficiency. The program provides the city with opportunities for new business developments and gives people a good place to live in,” he added.

Cynthia VanAllen, Emmet County finance director, said the program also provides education so the public better understands energy-efficient environments.

Spencer said communities are awarded points and green stars for engaging in and reporting green activities.

The Municipal League recognized Traverse City, Charlevoix, Dearborn, Farmington Hills, Ferndale, Grand Rapids, Marquette, Meridian Township and Troy for earning at least five green stars this year, he said.

In addition, the department has launched a Michigan Efficiency Network, MichEEN, which allows communities to collaborate on green initiatives online.

The new social media platform helps people and organizations working on energy issues to communicate, coordinate and collaborate, Spencer said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: State Agencies

More money not enough to report student information

Capital News Service

LANSING–A data collection mandate for public schools would get some financial support from legislation awaiting the governor’s approval, but some superintendents worry it won’t be enough.

A provision to reassign $25.6 million to cover the cost of collecting and reporting data to the state and federal governments is part of larger supplemental school aid for 2010-11.

The data includes information such as students’ home phone numbers and ethnicity, and square footage of classrooms.

The money results from a 2008 Michigan Supreme Court ruling that the state unconstitutionally mandated the program without funding to carry it out.

More than 450 school districts filed the suit to either eliminate the mandate or provide funding.

Superintendent Rick Seebeck of Gladwin Community Schools said the state required all districts to provide data for programs such as the Center for Education, Performance and Information, but pay the expenses themselves. That means school districts had to cover the cost of collecting data and reporting it.

But Seebeck said even if the program is funded, it’s still a waste of resources because such data as birth order and whether a student is a twin is unnecessary.

“The whole thing is useless. We don’t need any of that data,” said Seebeck.

He said schools have hired temporary replacements for secretaries who work on the data for two to three weeks, several times per year, which costs his district $6,000 to $7,000 annually.

“It’s the biggest pain in the neck since the last pain in the neck the state came up with,” said Seebeck.

Doug Pratt, the communications director for the Michigan Education Association (MEA), said data collection increased last year when the state made changes that demand more information to track student progress.

“It’s more bureaucracy and more paperwork,” Pratt said, “We need to balance the need for data to track student progress with the need to focus on working with students.”

Pratt said even if the money becomes available, it would merely reallocate existing funds.

“The legislation would pull money out of one pocket and put it in another,” said Pratt.

He also said $25.6 million isn’t enough.

“That amount in one-time money doesn’t deal with the cost of ongoing data collection,” said Pratt, “If you get $25 million divided among 525 school districts, that’s less than $50,000 for each.”

Superintendent Peter Haines of Greenville Public Schools said he suspects the reporting requirements hurt every district in the state.

“The most significant negative impact of these additional responsibilities is the increasing redistribution of precious financial resources away from the classroom,” said Haines.

Haines said he hopes the Department of Education will issue more standardized requirements to prevent information overlaps.

Gladwin’s Seebeck acknowledged that some of the mandated data could be useful but called the demands excessive.

“I’m sure the state has the best intentions, but they’ve gone too far to the point where it’s ineffective,” said Seebeck, “If there were tangible results that helped guide instruction, then I could see the value of the database, but we don’t use any of that data for educational purposes.”

Seebeck said he and several other superintendents considered not complying, but received a letter from the department warning that they’d lose state funding if they didn’t turn in the information.

He said, “I’m all for educational accountability, but when you’re too busy filling out forms to monitor students, there’s clearly a problem.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.



Filed under: Budget

Some say foreclosures can be good for economy

Capital News Service

LANSING – Foreclosure numbers are often used to show how poor an economy is, but stopping foreclosures, even temporarily, could undo the Michigan housing market’s progress, some experts say.

But other experts are calling for a halt in foreclosure practices while they are under scrutiny.

The state Mortgage Lenders Association and the Association of Realtors say that blocking or slowing foreclosures would make the housing situation worse for residents.

It would exacerbate problems that Michigan is already experiencing with falling home values and empty homes because lenders could no longer afford to make loans, said Murray Brown, legislative consultant for the Mortgage Lenders, based in Shelby Township.

“The supply of mortgage credit would dry up” if foreclosures were officially suspended, Brown said. That would make it harder to fund loans, causing home sales to plummet.

“Unless you are a portfolio lender, you wouldn’t have the available supply of funds from the markets to make the loans,” Brown said, and lenders would be unwilling to give mortgages during a moratorium.

“We would not support any kind of foreclosure moratorium,” said Brad Ward, director of public policy and legal affairs for the Association of Realtors.

“I think it would definitely halt the recovery that we are just starting to see in Michigan,” he said.

Unit sales are up and prices are just starting to stabilize, Ward said. Those developments influence a lender’s willingness to loan money.

“We don’t have as many of the concerns as other states,” he said of questionable foreclosure practices.

Attorney Gen. Mike Cox, and other state attorneys general are currently investigating mortgage foreclosure processes said, Joy Yearout of his communications office.

As a result of that inquiry, Gov. Jennifer Granholm is has called for lenders “to temporarily suspend foreclosures until the fraudulent activity has been investigated,” said Katie Carey of the governor’s communication office.

That investigation is helping Michigan because it is intended to reverse wrongful foreclosures, Carey said.

Ward said many lenders voluntarily stopped foreclosures temporarily when the lawsuit began, but have resumed them, Ward said.

Brown said, “The improprieties that have been highlighted nationally have not been highlighted in Michigan because Michigan has a different system of foreclosure.”

Michigan has a six-month redemption period, which most other states don’t have, Brown said. That gives homeowners time to sell their house or get financial assistance to keep their property.

“We did pass legislation that imposed a pause in the process of 90 days to allow people to meet with their lender to work out a modification of the loan,” Brown said.

The goal of the legislation was to keep people in their homes, Brown said. It had some success, but not as much as lenders would have liked.

“Many people did not opt to request mediation with their lender,” he said. “When they did opt to meet with their lender, they did not supply the proper documentation to make it possible for the lender to modify the loan.”

Carey said new legislation has been proposed that would stop foreclosures unless the lender participates in the Michigan State Housing Development Authority’s (MSHDA) Help for Hardest Hit program.

The state program can distribute up to about $500 million in federal funds to help homeowners and is projected to benefit more than 49,000 households with payment assistance and principle reductions, MSHDA said. Eligible homeowners must be receiving unemployment compensation or unable to afford their payments because of reduced income.

However, the Legislature won’t act on the proposal this year, said Callie Collins, chief of staff for Sen. Tupac Hunter, D-Detroit, one of the lead sponsors.

The Mortgage Lenders’ Brown said many states have a process where lenders and borrowers try to work something out to avoid foreclosure. In many cases the lender doesn’t want the home in foreclosure because that means bigger losses, he added.

That approach would be a more effective than the legislation because borrowers would better understand their options and the lender’s position, Brown said.

“The foreclosure process is very costly for the lender and the homeowner,” he added.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Economy

State moves to protect biodiversity of public, private lands

Capital News Service

LANSING – Kirtland’s warbler, a songbird that nests only in northern Michigan. Eastern massasauga rattler, the sole poisonous snake in the Great Lakes region. Majestic white pines. Miles of coastlines. Acres of wetlands.

Michigan is making strides in protecting its unique landscapes and wildlife.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) initiated a “Living Legacies” program to identify, restore and manage places that best represent the state’s biodiversity.

The department began researching the program in 2006.

“The plants, the animals and the microorganisms are what keep our natural places alive,” said Amy Clark Eagle, the biodiversity and conservation program leader at the department’s Forest Management Division.

Her division recently proposed designating 151 places in the northern Lower Peninsula as “biodiversity stewardship areas.” DNRE is holding public meetings on the proposal in Lansing, Traverse City and Gaylord this month.

The areas cover about 678,000 acres, 6 percent of the total region. They include Black River Wetlands in Cheboygan County, Boardman Sand Lakes Forest in Grand Traverse and Kalkaska counties, Devil’s Lake Shoreline Complex in Alpena and Muskegon Floodplain Complex in Clare.

Doug Pearsall, a senior scientist at the Nature Conservancy’s Michigan office, said the sites were determined on a scientific basis as the most important for biodiversity.

His organization helps the DNRE identify and determine how to manage biodiversity stewardship areas.

Eagle said the sites are under different types of ownership. They include DNRE or federally managed land, private property and land owned by other state or local agencies.

Pearsall said some Nature Conservancy preserves along the coasts of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are on the list.

“There are many species associated with those coastal systems in the northern Lower Peninsula,” Pearsall said.

For example, he said, Pitcher’s thistle and dwarf lake iris, two federally threatened plants, concentrate along those shorelines. Piping plover, an endangered small bird, inhabits the coast of Lake Huron.

“The Living Legacies program fits very well with our mission of conserving biodiversity,” Pearsall said.

Eagle said if a DNRE-owned site is designated, the department may change its land management practices to best preserve its biological heritage.

But it’s up to landowners to decide how to manage non-DNRE areas, she said.

For example, Pearsall said a conservation easement can protect the ecological value of private land. The easement is a voluntary, legally binding agreement where landowners retain ownership but promise not to develop them.

Pearsall said participating landowners could take advantage of federal or state funding to help conserve their designated properties, such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s habitat restoration programs.

Eagle said DNRE will propose places for designation in the Upper Peninsula and southern Lower Peninsula next year.

However, Erin McDonough, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said she wants to know how the state may change its management of some state game areas in southern Michigan if they are designated.

“Nobody is explaining what those changes could possibly be,” she said. “We want to make sure that those areas are managed for recreational activities.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Environment

Michigan markets prison beds to other states

Capital News Service

LANSING–Michigan is looking to fill up or open prisons by importing inmates from states with overcrowding problems — for a price.

“There aren’t any active or pending bids for prisoners, but several state facilities have extra beds or could re-open to meet the needs of other states,” said John Cordell, Department of Corrections public information officer.

Cordell said closed facilities, such as those in Deerfield and Riverside in Ionia County, and the Standish maximum-security prison in Arenac County could accommodate thousands of prisoners while benefiting nearby counties financially.

“We see states that need those beds,” Cordell said, “We’ll put in bids to get those prisoners.”

He said it’s much cheaper for states with overcrowded prisons like California, Georgia, Kansas and Pennsylvania to send inmates elsewhere instead of building new facilities or adding to existing ones.

Cordell said Michigan could put in competitive bids for contracts to lock up prisoners here.

Cordell said, “It doesn’t make a significant amount of money for Michigan, but it supports local communities and keeps people employed.”

Elizabeth Arnovits, the executive director of the Michigan Council for Crime and Delinquency, said, “Michigan is one of the leading states in effectively using prison space and keeping people locked up for the right amount of time,” which is why it’s a good candidate for other states to send prisoners to.

Thomas Mullaney, president of the Michigan Association of Counties, agreed that prisons help communities financially.

“Prisons can serve as a valuable economy stimulant, particularly in counties where economic growth is limited. The larger and more occupied a prison is, the more jobs it can provide to the surrounding communities,” he said.

Cordell said the re-opening of a Lake County facility near Muskegon is a success story that could be emulated by other prisons.

The department contracted with Pennsylvania last year to house prisoners and 2,000 prisoners came, Cordell said. The state receives $62 per day for each imported prisoner, and Pennsylvania covers their transportation and health care costs.

That works out to more than $45.2 million per year.

Cordell said the state has marketed the maximum-security Standish facility to the federal government and California, and an environmental survey of the prison is underway.

According to Corrections, Michigan’s prison population has decreased since 2005, when the state opted into a federal program that rehabilitates inmates and supports them once they’re paroled.

The program brings in faith-based organizations, provides group therapy for inmates and helps parolees find jobs and housing upon release.

A department study shows a 33 percent drop in recidivism rates between the start of the program in 2005 and May 2010.

Cordell said Kansas used the same re-entry program successfully, but it ended recently because of funding problems. Now Kansas is looking for beds in other states to handle the increase.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: State Agencies

Theft crimes worry sheriffs

Capital News Service

LANSING—The overall crime rate has decreased statewide in Michigan but a rise in theft crimes remains a threat to safety, including in the northern Lower Peninsula, experts say.

Eddie Washington Jr., director of the State Police, said the drop in overall reported crimes is not surprising and that the crime rate and unemployment rate are not directly correlated.

Washington said, “Within the state, there have been times where the economy was good but the crime rate was still high.”

Theft crimes include property crimes, larcenies, burglaries and stolen vehicles.

In Traverse City, 1,028 theft crimes were reported in 2009 said Jamie Mathews, of the State Police Criminal Justice Information Center. That was up from 1,004 in 2007.

In Petoskey, the number rose to 252 in 2009 from 250 in 2008, Mathews said.

In Alpena, the number went up to 696 in 2009 from 672 in 2008.

Police departments are dealing with different types of theft crimes.

Kim Shomin, office manager for the Emmet County Sheriff’s Department, said no one type is dominant. The department doesn’t track the most commonly stolen items, she said.

Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley said there is not one particular theft crime that occurs most often although one type has become more evident in the county.

“We’ve seen larceny in auto-theft crimes and people break into vehicles looking for money,” Bensley said.

Over the past few years, there have been drug store burglaries in the county as well, Bensley said. That has contributed to the rise in reported theft crimes, he said.

Bensley said his department puts a high priority on serious crimes.

Theft crimes are considered important, he said. The department has enough officers to handle those, Bensley said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Uncategorized

Small businesses dive into online pool

Capital News Service

LANSING – When Ryann Lambay, owner of the Grand Rapids boutique Lamb, decided to feature a selection of her store’s products online two years ago, she intended it mainly as a tool to inform customers.

Now, Lambay estimates that close to 30 percent of this year’s sales came from the online store, which features less than one-third of Lamb’s merchandise.

“I never expected it to be this popular,” she said, adding that many of her Internet shoppers are from the Grand Rapids area and live close to the actual store.

“People want to shop local but don’t always have the time to. Now the convenience factor is very high,” Lambay said. “A lot of orders come in Sunday at 11 p.m. People come home from work, unwind and want to shop.”

Tom Scott, senior vice president of communications and marketing for the Michigan Retailers Association, said more local retailers do business online because they realize that customers want to shop from the comfort of their own homes.

“It’s almost become a given that if you’re in business, you need to have an online presence,” he said.

Michael Rogers, vice president of communications for the Small Business Association of Michigan, said while it may be tricky for small businesses to balance the cost of starting an online business against potential success, it’s a booming arena.

As a tourist state, it’s likely that specialty retailers selling gifts, handcrafted items or unique Michigan products succeed with online sales, he said.

“A lot of tourists come here in the summer and then want to re-buy products later in the year. It’s a way for small businesses to supplement their summer sales,” Rogers said, adding that it’s a trend among food suppliers such as American Spoon Foods in Petoskey and Cherry Republic, which has stores in Traverse City, Glen Arbor and Charlevoix.

But an online store may not benefit all types of businesses, Rogers said, noting that small hardware suppliers would have difficulty competing with Home Depot’s online store.

Scott said that retailers expanding to online sales may encounter barriers such as technology, shipping and finding the time to manage the site.

“The big problem they face is being able to make the time to put the resources into an online presence. One retailer said that having a website is like having another store, which it basically is,” Scott said.

April McCrumb, owner of Catching Fireflies, a gift shop in Rochester and Berkley, said she expects her online business to outsell one of the brick-and-mortar stores within the next year.

Since bringing her boutique online, Lambay hired another employee who spends six or seven hours each week on website maintenance.

Jay Fowler, executive director of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, said even with the online success of local retailers, Internet shouldn’t hurt downtown businesses.

“It expands their sales,” Fowler said. “These smaller businesses have an opportunity to be aggressive and online.”

Scott agreed that a strong online store promotes the physical store, and the two venues “reinforce each other.”

Yet online shoppers expect the same level of customer service they receive at the local, family-owned store.

“Customers enjoy being able to buy something on the Internet and pick it up at the store the next day, or return it directly to the store instead of shipping it back,” Scott said.

Lambay said her store ships products within 24 hours of an online order, and unless an order is placed in the middle of the night, the customer will receive a thank you e-mail and status update within three hours of the sale.

Besides working out kinks along the way, Lambay’s advice to boutiques looking to enter the Internet is to start small.

“It took a little bit to get into the groove of things,” she said. “But it’s definitely better this year.”


Filed under: Economy

West Michigan charging ahead for electric vehicles

Capital News Service

LANSING – General Motors launched its hybrid Chevy Volt recently. Nissan’s electric car, Leaf, will soon be on the market.

Meanwhile, West Michigan is ready to play a major role in the electric vehicle world.

The area will become a manufacturing base for vehicle cells and one of the first regions where electric car owners can plug in their vehicles, experts say.

“This is an extremely large opportunity,” said Bruce Adair, director of business services at Lakeshore Advantage, a Zeeland-based economic development organization.

Adair said West Michigan’s high-tech workforce has attracted world-class advanced battery manufacturers.

For example, South Korea company LG Chem, is building a 600,000-square-foot lithium-ion battery plant in Holland and plans an electrolyte production facility nearby.

The company makes batteries for the Chevy Volt and has contracted with Ford Motor Co. to supply batteries for its 2012 Ford Focus BEV.

Adair said Johnson Controls-Saft, a U.S.-French joint venture, is assembling vehicle cell packs in Holland and will produce its own cells next year.

Michael Shore, director of corporate communications at the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said state tax incentives help businesses build facilities.

In turn, they must hire Michigan residents, Shore said.

For example, fortu PowerCell Inc., a European manufacturer, is getting a tax credit of more than $100 million to build a battery plant in Muskegon, which will invest $623 million and employ 726.

Adair said the LG Chem and Johnson Controls-Saft projects will bring about $500 million in investment and more than 1,000 jobs.

A Howard City business, Flex-Cable, is set to produce a cable to connect the battery to the engine of the Chevy Volt and other electric cars. It will invest $222,000 and create at least 26 jobs.

Shore said there’s an increasing need for skilled employees, so universities and community colleges help train the workforce for the industry.

Adair said Grand Rapids Community College started a certificate program this fall to improve worker skills for advanced battery manufacturing.

In addition, the area plans to set up charging stations for electric cars.

Arn Boezaart, director of the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center at Grand Valley State University, said the first station will be built outside his center by the end of the year to demonstrate the new technology.

The stations are funded by ChargePoint America, a federal program that helps priority urban areas establish electric charging station networks.

One installed in Detroit in September was the state’s first under the program.

“In West Michigan we can participate in it,” Boezaart said. “You combine the communities of Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Holland, and it represents over a million people.”

Boezaart’s center, along with West Michigan Strategic Alliance in Grand Rapids and the Holland Board of Public Works, are identifying potential locations and encouraging communities to install the charging technology.

But some communities are reluctant because the federal money covers only the hardware, Boezaart said.

He said people who want to set up a charging station must pay an installation fee of up to several thousand dollars.

“They would rather wait until the demand is greater,” Boezaart said.

But Adair said it’s important to create an infrastructure and a workforce to help the industry expand.

“We see this as a growing sector,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to facilitate taking advantage of the opportunity that’s been presented to us.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Uncategorized

Benefits touted for students in online K-12 classes

Capital News Service

LANSING – An increase in online K-12 classes is bringing more equal education opportunities to students across the state, experts say.

Online courses allow students to take classes that may not be offered at their local schools, said Punya Mishra, a professor in education technology at Michigan State University.

“You don’t have to be at a certain place at a certain time,” he said. “It’s a way to democratize education.”

A student in the Upper Peninsula who wants to take an advanced French or algebra course might not find a teacher for that class in his or her school, Mishra said. But the student could take that course online.

The state now requires all high school students to have an “online learning experience” to graduate. That shows schools that online experiences are an acceptable way to deliver information to their students, said Bruce Umpstead, director of the Office of Education Technology and Data Coordination at the Department of Education (MDE).

Students need 20 hours of “online engagement” from grades 6 to 12, Umpstead said. That could be satisfied with one online class or multiple online experiences that teachers integrate into their classes.

Research suggests that students who receive a combination of online and face-to-face classroom experiences perform better in the classroom than students who receive only face-to-face experiences, Umpstead said.

“Teachers who integrate their classrooms with technology have higher engagement,” he said. “Engaging programs bring authentic learning.”

Online courses enable students to “learn in the same environment in which they live,” Umpstead said. “It allows for broad collaboration, for anywhere learning.”

They also allow for instantaneous feedback between teacher and student, which can help at-risk students who may be thinking of dropping out, he added.

In Grand Rapids, high school students can choose elective and core classes either completely online or in hybrid settings that combine online and traditional styles, said John Helmholdt, director of communications for Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“We’re kind of a step ahead of the online graduation requirement,” Helmholdt said.

Last year, Grand Rapids opened new facilities called “centers of innovation.” Ninth-grade students at the centers who took core classes entirely online outperformed 9th graders in traditional classrooms, he said.

A special education teacher at one center, the Academy for Design and Construction, reported more progress by her students who take online rather than traditional courses, Helmholdt said, in part, because of the relationship-building between student and teacher.

Students must meet specific performance standards to reach more advanced levels, Helmholdt said. Teachers can monitor their progress and group them together more effectively to determine what each student needs.

Since most tests and homework assignments are embedded in the software programs, teachers have more time to interact directly with students rather than using that time to grade work or complete paperwork, he said.

Jamey Fitzpatrick, president of Michigan Virtual University, said, “It fosters a different level of communication. Online instructors tell us that they frequently get to know their virtual students better” than their face-to-face ones.

Michigan Virtual University is a nonprofit organization that offers online classes and resources.

Fitzpatrick said online courses can be especially helpful to students who are unable to attend school because of health problems.

One of the organization’s students was a cancer patient who was couldn’t go to school because of chemotherapy but wanted to continue her education during treatment, he said. For students with anxiety disorders, face-to-face interactions are difficult, so some prefer online classes.

In another case, a Detroit-area student competed on the U.S. Olympics Team in figure skating and took about 20 classes online because competitions often took her away from Michigan, Fitzpatrick said.

MDE’s Umpstead said some research suggests that about 25 to 50 percent of K-12 education should be online over the next 10 years because of the benefits of such learning.

If that were to happen, schools may need to provide computers with broadband access to homes without computers or Internet access, Umpstead said. That’s because Michigan requires K-12 schools to provide educational resources at no cost, such as textbooks.

“Computers and broadband access become equivalent to the paper and pencil,” he said.

MSU’s Mishra said online education “needs to be designed and orchestrated properly” to be effective.

“Many people just take basic face-to-face stuff and put it online,” he said. Simply posting a quiz or videotaping a lecture and posting it doesn’t live up to the potential of the medium or provide the engaging experiences students need.

Fitzpatrick said the real benefit of online courses is that they teach young people to learn through technology, which is how students need to learn in college or at work.

“It really comes down to 21st century learning skills,” he said.

Grand Rapids’ Helmholdt said, “What’s great about online is it really provides multiple opportunities to learn about a particular subject.”

Students can watch a lecture, or go to websites with photos, videos, online books or with translation capabilities for students learning English as a second language, he said.

“This really is the future of education,” he said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Education

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