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Independent-Study Courses

A high school student who does not have access to independent-study courses for credit is missing a great opportunity. Some teachers might think that the interaction in a classroom and the benefits of oral recitation outweigh the benefits of independent study. However, there are several great advantages of independent study. One is that it can be the springboard for lifetime study pursuing personal interests. Where better to begin this habit of pursuing personal interests than in high school. A personal interest in the American Civil War, for example, can be pursued unfettered by classroom assignments and classroom recitations. There are all the generals to learn about, the various battles, Lincoln's selections of leaders, the government of the Confederacy, the industrialization of the North, and many other fascinating aspects of the war. Once a student becomes absorbed in a study such as this, he or she can make use of many learning resources. The student is motivated by his or her own interests, not by the assignments of the teacher.

Another great advantage of independent study is that it is self paced. Instead of being held up by other students, a student can forge ahead; he or she is not side-tracked by others' problems or interests; rather, the focus is solely on the student's own education. A self-paced course can be just as thoroughly organized as a teacher-taught course so that all important material is covered and learnings are built up sequentially.

Many educators have wanted ways to expand course offerings. In small schools, particularly, the course offerings are limited. Even in large schools, there are some students whose special interests cannot be met by course offerings. The range of independent-study courses is enormous - another great advantage.

Adults have long known about the value of independent-study courses, which are usually conducted through the mail. Some of these courses have come to be highly developed, employing excellent pedagogy and offering up-to-date subject matter. One I am familiar with, having recently completed it, is the beginning course offered by the New York Institute of Photography. The instructional materials, consisting of videotapes, audiotapes, and beautifully illustrated booklets, have been honed so that they are what most students want to learn. The subject matter is up to date. Students are tested periodically on what they have learned, and an audiotape from the instructor with his or her comments is sent to the student about each of the student's photo projects.

Independent-study course offerings for adults are even greater than those for high school students. According to Peterson's Education Center on the Internet at http://www.petersons.com, "the National University Continuing Education Association's 400 members offer over 10,000 correspondence courses in 40 broad fields representing 584 specific areas of study at the high school and college levels." Peterson's publishes the Independent Study Catalog, listing courses from correspondence schools. In addition to correspondence courses, learning the electronic way is expanding rapidly. "National University Continuing Education Association's members offer more than 700 for-credit courses and degree programs through electronic means, including television, computers, and videocassettes." References to these courses and degree programs are published in The Electronic University, which contains a complete listing of degree and certificate programs offered electronically in the US (Peterson's Guides).

For several reasons, then, many secondary schools are including independent- study courses for credit as part of their course offerings. First, when students take independent-study courses in high school, they are introduced to the idea of taking independent-study courses, which they can take advantage of as adults. Second, the courses are self-paced, and students are not held up by other students in a class. Third, the best independent-study courses are very well worked out, with learnings sequentially presented, important learnings fully covered, and excellent teaching methods used. Fourth, courses are offered that some high schools, because of size, are unable to offer. For all these reasons, among others, independent-study courses for credit are offered in many secondary schools.

According to Robert Stone, Jr., State Director of the Division of Independent Study for the state of North Dakota, the Division, for example, has students enrolled from schools in all fifty states. Since the Division is a regionally accredited high school, credits earned through their independent-study program are accepted by other high schools just as transferred credits from another high school are accepted. He says that schools where the local school board does not allow students to take independent-study courses for credit are few. He observes that, since distance education courses are part of the technology trend, credits earned through them are more readily accepted by traditional school systems than in the past. (Personal letter from Robert Stone, 9/6/1996) In a similar vein, James Augustyn, Academic Adviser at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Independent Study High School, comments, "Students who seek to transfer credit to other secondary schools are always advised to confer with their counselors or principals about the courses they intend to take with us and first obtain permission before enrolling. This not only notifies the receiver school of the student's intent but helps to ensure that the student is taking a course that is suitable to his or her curriculum. Due to our organization as a secondary school and our accreditation, those students who complete courses encounter little difficulty with transferring their credit to secondary schools throughout the United States." (Personal letter from James Augustyn, 9/19/1996)

It is possible in some cases for high school students to take university-level independent-study courses for university credit as well as high school credit. The University of Wisconsin-Extension, for example, allows qualified high-school-age students to take university courses for university credit. Enrollment must be approved by the appropriate University of Wisconsin academic department, and students attending a high school must have the written recommendation of a high school counselor or principal (1996-97 catalog of the University of Wisconsin-Extension). According to Darryl P. Sedio, Director of the Advanced High School Student Services of the University of Minnesota, local Minnesota high schools are obligated to accept any college-level credits that their students accumulate. It must be true that many other states also accept such credits.


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