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11:35 am
Thu June 16, 2011

Meet RI's first online high school graduate

PROVIDENCE, RI – Thousands of high school seniors are receiving diplomas across the Rhode Island this month, including 375 in Woonsocket. That ceremony will include the state's first online high school graduate. I met with Daniel McNulty, the first student in Rhode Island to do all of his high school coursework on the internet.

Daniel McNulty stands in the middle of a long white hallway at Woonsocket's Career and Technical High School. The 17-year-old has rarely walked these halls, because of serious health problems.

"Mostly immune system disorders, but I have a lot of sinus problems, asthma and a big one: enocinophiloic esophogities. It's like where my esophagus kinds swells up and the white blood cells accumulate so I have trouble swallowing," he says.

Chronic illness kept McNulty at home through most of middle and elementary school, but he was able to keep up with his studies thanks to a tutor from the Woonsocket school department. When he got to high school that strategy wasn't working says his mother, Margaret McNulty.

"At the High School level it was that much more difficult, and we called the guidance counselor at the time and said we don't think this is gonna work. we need a plan c for a plan b!" she says.

Today, Daniel McNulty is graduating on time and 6th in his class using an online learning program that allowed him to do all of his coursework from his home computer. The lanky senior says his biggest challenge was the occasional computer glitch.

"I took out books at the library and different magazines and I learned how to fix some common problems so now if something's going wrong, something internal with the computer I take it apart, fix it and put it back together again," he says.

Not every student is as tech tech-savvy as McNulty, but many do take classes online these days. E-courses look a lot like a text book that the user can scroll through one page at a time. Periodically a quiz pops up, usually requiring a score of 80 percent or better to move on to the next section. School staff can log into the system to find out how often students use it and how they are progressing.

"If Dan wasn't on, we knew that was cause Dan was sick."

Sue Leeja runs Woonsocket's e-learning classroom. She says McNulty was one of her most dedicated students.

"He would take a test an call me: Mrs. Leeja, it's dan. Hey buddy, what can I do for you? Well I took my test and I'd like to know what I did wrong. Sure, what subject. History. I'd go into history. Dan you got a 95. It's like god bless you I'd like to have a whole room full of you," she says.

Woonsocket's online learning program has grown from five students just a few years ago to hundreds of students today. Most use it to re-take a class they failed or take an Advanced Placement course not offered by the district. School officials say they believe the program is helping more students to graduate on time.

But Online learning does have critics. Diane Ravitch is a former Assistant U-S Education Secretary and a researcher at New York University.

"Most learning," she says, "I think requires an interaction between real people. You discuss it, what do you think really was behind this, what were the causes, what are the effects, different people have different ideas, you listen to them. If you're sitting in front of a computer, I think computers are terrific, but if that were the primary means of instruction I think that would be a great loss."

A loss is not how Daniel McNulty describes his education, though it may be unusual. As he takes a last look around Woonsocket's e-learning center, he compares his high school experience to a Robert Frost poem.

"Two roads diverged in the wood and I tool the one less traveled by and it has made all the difference," he says. "I took a different learning path, and that has made all the difference."

Daniel McNulty plans to study respiratory therapy in the fall at the Community College of Rhode Island. He will take some classes online and some in a traditional classroom, as long as his health is good enough.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.