For various reasons, dozens of public school students in Bradford and Sullivan counties are taking at least some of their courses online through the VLINC program.
A student could, for example, be taking an online course such as Mandarin Chinese or music theory, which his or her school does not offer.
Or student might be taking a math or English course online that he or she had failed and needs to repeat in order to graduate on time with his or her class.
Or a student could be taking online courses because he or she has child and a job, and the only time that he or she has available to take his or her courses is at night.
“We’ve had some real success stories” with VLINC, said Amy Reilly, the VLINC coordinator for the Towanda School District, who added that there are students who probably wouldn’t have been able to graduate from Towanda High School without VLINC. “We’re pleased with it so far.”
VLINC, which is run by BLaST Intermediate Unit 17, is a program to provide free, online courses to public school students, said Jerry Christy, program coordinator for the intermediate unit. The courses, which are being used in every school district in Bradford and Sullivan counties, are provided by six vendors that contract with Intermediate Unit 17.
One of the main reasons why the Towanda School District uses VLINC is to provide an alternative to cyber charter schools, Towanda schools Superintendent Steve Gobble said. Cyber charter schools are much more expensive for a school district to pay for than VLINC, explained Jane Montague, the director of educational programming for the Athens Area School District.
Students who take online courses through VLINC need to be “self-directed, independent learners” because they don’t have a teacher standing over them, Montague said.
“I think for some students it works out (to take online courses), and for others it doesn’t,” said Diane M. Place, Athens superintendent of schools.
Wyalusing High School student Wesley Ballard is taking a second-year German course online through VLINC, because his school district laid off its German teacher last year, school Principal Gary Otis said.
Ballard said he preferred taking his first-year German course, where he had a live teacher from Germany.
“She made the class fun,” he said. 
Wyalusing High student Megan Waldrop said that she doesn’t feel as “engaged” learning first-year French online, compared to classes where she has live teachers. 
Waldrop and two other classmates taking online French I, who complained in interviews about the course, are good students, according to Otis. However, they are used to interacting with a teacher and need more time to get used to working on an online course, he said.
Christy said that feedback from parents to the VLINC program, which is 5 years old and continues to grow in enrollment, has been “encouraging.”
“Overall, the feedback to VLINC has been very positive,” Christy said. “There have been some growing pains, but you’ll have that with any program.”
He said that online courses are not easy to take, and taking a foreign language online makes it even harder, because you want immediate feedback from your teacher on how you’re pronouncing your words, he said. In an online class, a student may not be able to get a question answered immediately by his or her teacher, because the teacher may not be available, which adds to the challenge, Christy said.
More than 300 students from Bradford, Sullivan, Lycoming and Union counties are taking a total of more than 1,110 online courses through VLINC, Christy said.
Students can take all of their courses through VLINC, or they can take some of their courses in regular classes at their school, and the rest through VLINC.
Students who take courses through VLINC remain a student of their school district and receive a high school diploma from their school district, according to Intermediate Unit 17’s website.
School districts vary in how they make use of VLINC courses.
The Wyalusing School District, for example, uses VLINC only to provide French and German instruction to its students, because it doesn’t have teachers of those subjects, Otis said.
The Northeast Bradford School District uses VLINC to offer extra courses to its gifted students.
And the Athens Area School District gives all of its students the opportunity to try a wide range of VLINC courses, if they wish, according to Montague.
“We (VLINC) can provide virtually anything (as far as courses) that you could get in a bricks-and-mortar school,” Christy said.
VLINC offers everything from AP courses to regular core courses to electives that are not typically offered at a public school, such as forensics and marine biology, officials said.
The Wyalusing School District plans to start offering Chinese through the VLINC program next year, Otis said.
Most students take the courses at home, but there are cases, such as at the Wyalusing School District, where students take courses together in a computer lab at a school, Christy said.
Each VLINC course has a teacher, who may have students from a number of different states, Christy said.
Students can get in touch with the teacher if they don’t understand something having to do with the course’s content, he said. For example, in most courses, students can get in touch with their teacher through an internal messaging system, “which looks a lot like email,” he said.
A student could set up an online chat with his or teacher, he said.
VLINC’s courses use a variety of formats to teach students, Christy said. First of all, there is “a lot of reading” involved when taking a VLINC course, he said. Increasingly, there are instructional videos being used online, such as a pre-recorded video of a teacher teaching a lesson or a video of an expert explaining something on YouTube, he said.
In the French I online course at Wyalusing High, students can use headphones to hear a recording of their teacher pronouncing the words that appear on their computer screen.
While the Athens School District allows any student to try VLINC, it does not encourage students to participate in the program, Montague said.
“We feel students are best served” when they take their courses through a bricks-and-mortar school, she explained.
For some students, though, VLINC “seems to be the best avenue for them to pursue their education,” she said.
Montague said she monitors the progress of the more than 20 Athens School District students who are taking VLINC courses. She goes online to see, for example, what grades they are getting on quizzes and tests, and how far along they are in their coursework.
She sends a letter every four to six weeks to parents, reporting on their child’s progress. 
Parents can also go online themselves to monitor their children’s grades and progress in a VLINC course, she said.
A future story in The Daily Review will look at the practice of local high school students taking online courses offered by colleges.