Utah's Open High Is Making a Difference Around the World

Just about everyone wishes they had a different high school experience, but high school students in Utah have the opportunity to not only choose an alternative to traditional high school, but to be educational pioneers in the process. DeLaina Tonks, Director of the Open High School of Utah, tells Study.com what kind of student might be the right fit for Open High and how this innovative new school came into being.

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By Stacy Redd

Study.com: Can you describe the Open High School experience for students?

DeLaina Tonks: We have 350 full-time and 50 part-time students. We're a public school, so we select students by lottery if we have to. Our student body's a cross-section of Utah. We have actors and athletes who travel and take school with them. We serve the underserved populations that aren't getting their needs met elsewhere. That encapsulates a high percentage (13%-14%) of special ed students, who get the individual instruction they need. We have home-schooled students and we have high achievers who don't want to sit in the classroom and wait for their teacher to get everybody caught up to where they already are.

Because of our kids' varied schedules, we do very little synchronous instruction. They have access to school 24/7. We do a lot of collaboration, but it's not in real-time. To get kids together, we do activities twice a month. One of those is a service-learning activity, and then we do a social activity. We spread those out across the state, so whoever lives in that area is able to come.

Study.com: What's Open High School like from the teacher's side?

DT: Their time is freed up to do what teachers go into the profession to do in the first place, which is work with students. From the students' perspective, they open their computer. They start working on something. They have a question. They contact their teacher. They get what they need when they need it, and then they're able to move on. They move through the curriculum a little bit easier. A lot of housekeeping stuff is irrelevant because of online data tracking. We don't have to take attendance, wait for homework to be passed in or go over test questions.

Online teachers have to be a lot more proactive; you have to chase kids down and encourage them to engage. Once they do, it's fantastic. When I taught in a brick-and-mortar school, I identified my students as a collective group by the period I taught them. Online, that wasn't the case. They became more real outside a collective.

Study.com: Do you get a lot of teacher feedback? I assume most of them came from traditional classrooms.

DT: Most of them did. We've hired some fresh out of college. The median faculty age at our school is about 28. I'll quote one of my teachers who told me that I ruined her. She'll never be able to go back to a brick-and-mortar school because of our data-rich environment. She can tailor instruction to students' needs.

Study.com: It seems like in open education postsecondary material gets the most attention. Are there other open K-12 initiatives?

DT: We're the first secondary school to build a completely OER-based curriculum. There are schools that have been building courses here and there using OER just for funding reasons, and it makes sense to do that. We share courses, but we publish everything publically.

Study.com: Is there anything you'd like to tell our readers about Open High School or OER in general?

All teachers supplement lessons, so all teachers use OER, whether they know what it's called or not. It's just easier to manipulate in that online environment. But every teacher supplements the text. Teachers are tinkerers by trade. They fill those gaps with teacher-created material. That's OER.

Large-scale implementation, if you're moving to a blended model, is super-simple. If you're in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting, it becomes a little more difficult because you may not know where to go to get it. It's going to take a point-person at a school or in a department finding and creating some sort of repository. Creative Commons (CC) licensing is huge. We have to teach the general education population what a CC license is and how to do a search for it on Google. You'll get all sorts of resources. Then you don't have to find repositories; the resources come to you.

As far as Open High School, we release our course shells, 30 semesters worth so far. We have people from Africa using it. After the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand didn't have enough school buildings to house all their children, so students swapped days and used our curriculum as supplement. China and Latin America are using our stuff too. OER's spreading, and it seems to be going where the need is. Maybe there's not as big of a need right now in the U.S. The mission and evangelization of OER is very much happening across the globe.

When you look at the altruistic phenomenon that happens, our goal becomes clear. I had a director from a school in Ethiopia surprise visit my office in August, and he thanked me profusely for the courses we'd given them. They were making a huge difference in a little town in Africa. That's priceless.

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