Md. School Joins Test of Online Courses Tailored to Girls

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009

When the Online School for Girls flickers to life this fall on computer screens across the country, students will take part in an unusual experiment that joins two trends: girls-only schooling and online teaching.

A consortium that includes the 108-year-old Holton-Arms School in Bethesda is driving the project, in the belief that girls can benefit from an Internet curriculum tailored just to them.

"There's been a lot of research done on how girls learn differently with technology than boys," said Brad Rathgeber, Holton-Arms's director of technology. "Part of this is a little bit of theory that we're trying to put in practice to see if it really does play out."

For now, the online collaboration will allow the four participating schools -- Holton-Arms, Harpeth Hall in Nashville, Westover School in Middlebury, Conn., and Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio -- to offer classes that would not have generated enough student interest or teacher support in any one school. When the classes open to the public a year later, the educators hope that students around the world -- including homeschoolers and girls at coed schools -- will be able to take part in a version of the girls' school experience. And they want to prove that single-sex online education works. They can't find anyone who has done anything similar.

Backers of girls' schools say there are benefits to having no boys in the classroom: Girls prosper when teaching methods are designed just for them, they can pursue interests free from gender stereotyping and their hands shoot up more often when boys aren't around.

But that is when girls are in the same classroom. Whether Holton-Arms's communal boy-free experience will translate to the solitary act of sitting at a computer remains to be seen.

Brick-and-mortar single-sex education has been catching on. It has long been the domain of such private schools as those united in the online venture, but now public schools are increasingly placing boys in one classroom and girls in another. In 2002, just 11 public schools across the country offered single-sex classrooms, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Now they number more than 500.

Online education has boomed as well. A national survey released in January by the Sloan Consortium, an online education organization, estimated that the number of K-12 students nationwide who took online courses had increased by nearly 50 percent since the 2005-06 school year.

People involved in the online girls' school project say they can capitalize on the popularity of both.

"Girls thrive best in environments where connectivity is valued," said Larry Goodman, director of strategic programming at the Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. "There's no one out there who's thinking with a specifically feminine audience in mind."

One expert on single-sex education said it might be possible to design an online course in a way that would benefit girls, but she cautioned that she hadn't found that simply separating the sexes, whether in the classroom or on the Internet, is inherently beneficial.

"If they're in an online environment where they're going to be doing wikis and blogs, that would serve the girls," said Frances R. Spielhagen, an assistant professor of education at Mount Saint Mary College in New York. But "the online capability is as good as, and only as good as, the educational experience that the teacher has crafted."

The classes, which will range in subject from multivariable calculus and differential equations to women in art and literature, will focus on collaborative projects, even in subjects, such as math, that are more typically solitary pursuits, and will be capped at 20 students each. Average class size at the physical Holton-Arms School, which teaches grades three through 12, is 15.

In the first year, the online offerings will total six courses -- two in the fall, four in the spring -- and will be limited to high school students at the four schools. Teachers in the schools will design and present the curriculum, although students will work through the material largely independently, on schedules they choose. For now, students won't pay anything in addition to tuition, which at the 650-student Holton-Arms runs $28,500 a year.

Course prices for the public have not been set.

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