In the middle of an assignment to write a computer program that would simulate a swimming fish, Travis Goodrich found that his computer had stopped working.
The junior at Thomas Stone High School sat up, stared over the monitor at no one in particular and said in a loud voice:
From left, Travis Goodrich, Robert Jackson, Christopher Mozingo and Mychal Sligh at Thomas Stone High School.
(Rafael Crisostomo For The Washington Post)
"Um, Mr. Greenawalt, my computer just froze, so I'm not going to be able to send this to you."
From six miles away, at another Southern Maryland high school, Joseph Greenawalt's disembodied voice came back across speakers:
"Travis, that is you, right?"
Such is the reality of classroom culture in the burgeoning arena of distance learning. Charles County's Advanced Placement computer science course, transmitted over the Internet from Westlake High School with videoconferencing technology, is one of the growing number of classes in the region in which teachers are removed from their students. School officials in Maryland said enrollments in online courses have more than tripled since last year.
"In the past, school systems did not have a robust enough infrastructure, not enough bandwidth to do some of these things," said Jayme Moore, director of instructional technology for the Maryland State Department of Education. "We're seeing more and more systems starting to explore the technology."
The classes can help schools combat a teacher shortage or offer instruction when there are not enough students to require a class. The six students in the Thomas Stone class, a pilot program in its second year, can watch an image of Greenawalt projected onto the wall of their computer lab as he teaches a class at Westlake High School. A video camera on stacked cardboard boxes lets Greenawalt monitor his virtual class: "I see six heads," he said as a recent class began. "Let's get started."
In Fairfax County, fifth-graders at Mantua Elementary used videoconferencing to chat with actors at the Globe Theatre in London during their unit on Shakespeare. Students in the gifted program called an astrophysicist at NASA up on their screen as they discussed black holes. Another group has ongoing video discussions with a small, rural school in Northern Ireland.
"They tell fabulous stories about getting their donkeys stuck in the snow," said Mantua Principal Jan-Marie Fernandez. "It's totally different, their small-school life compared with how our kids live. It's been really interesting."
Virginia created a Virtual Advanced Placement School last year to encourage more high school students to take the college-level classes. This school year, nearly 600 students enrolled in Internet and satellite-televised classes through the program, and school officials "expect a huge increase" next year, said Greg Weisiger, director of teleproduction with the Virginia Department of Education.
Quincey Garcia, 18, took three virtual classes this year because the Latin, AP government and AP calculus courses she wanted weren't offered at Covington High School in Alleghany County. She watched streaming-video lectures in the computer lab and e-mailed or faxed her assignments to her teacher in Richmond. She was supposed to check in by phone regularly, but she said "it was hard to find the time when she isn't right in front of you."
Ideally, it would be better for students to have a teacher in the classroom, said Garcia's calculus teacher, Mary Mayo, known to students as "the lady in the box" because she gives lessons to a camera in an empty studio in a Richmond high school. But for many students, Mayo said, it's not possible.
"A lot of the schools are small, in rural, isolated areas," she said, where there may not be anyone who wants to or is able to teach a certain course.