Elizabeth Swoboda competes in alpine skiing with the Bridger Ski Foundation, so to free up her afternoons for training, she's taking five morning classes at Bozeman High School and two online classes from the state's new Montana Digital Academy.

"I like it because it's really convenient. It's easy if you're on top of it," said Swoboda, a 14-year-old freshman, who is taking German and digital photography online.

"It's easy to fall behind," she cautioned. "It takes a lot of motivation. I don't procrastinate. A lot of people on my ski team are behind, perhaps by months.

"You have more freedom," Swoboda said, "but you have more responsibility."

Montana's great experiment with online learning will complete its first semester next month, and so far it's earning good, if not perfect grades.

Bob Currie, director of the Montana Digital Academy, based in Missoula, said he'd hoped to attract 2,000 students in the first year and already 1,430 students signed up, taking 1,951 classes in the first semester.

Some 67 Montana teachers are conducting 50 different classes and serving 137 schools. Currie said he expects enrollment to be strong again in the spring and next summer.

"We've got a lot of work to do, but it's been very successful," Currie said.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer has asked the 2011 Legislature to invest $2.3 million over the next two years to continue the Digital Academy and keep it tuition-free. It had bipartisan support in the last Legislature, Currie said. Montana is the 34th state to create a "virtual" school program.

Taking high school classes on the Internet benefits Montana students who need to make up credits for graduation, like Bozeman High's Kristina Krupilnitskaya, 16, who's taking a semester of biology that she missed.

The Digital Academy is also designed to help students in small rural high schools that can't offer college-level Advanced Placement classes, or a variety of science or foreign language classes.

And it's helping home-school students like 17-year-old Delena Maney, who is taking a Montana Digital Academy class in psychology, through an agreement with Bozeman High. She paid $100 to take two online classes from Idaho's digital academy, and she's glad the Montana classes are free.

"I actually really like it," Maney said. "One of the advantages is you kind of work at your own pace. You have to be self-motivated. You don't have someone standing in front of you."

The way the Legislature set up the academy, students can't sign up for classes directly. Instead they must work through their local high schools, which usually require students to take at least one regular brick-and-mortar class as well.

The Montana Digital Academy doesn't work for every high school student. Ten percent of those who signed up for classes dropped out in September, Currie said.

It seems to work for self-motivated, well-organized students, said Bozeman High guidance counselor Dianne Corneer and Nancy Sheffield, guidance secretary and Digital Academy's on-site facilitator. But students who struggled with or failed regular classes and try an online class to make up credits can struggle to keep up with an absentee online teacher.

"If they get too far behind, they're in a pickle," Corneer said. "It's a real good deal for (motivated students). But it isn't a placebo for everybody."

At Bozeman High, 61 students are signed up for Digital Academy classes, and about a third are doing so to make up credits for graduation, Principal Rob Watson told Bozeman School Board trustees last week.

Bozeman High teachers Jerry Reisig and Amy Wallner-Drake told trustees about their experiences teaching Digital Academy classes. Wallner-Drake said she got more than 30 hours of training last summer and she's now teaching world geography to students from Bozeman to Billings, Poplar and a Hutterite colony.

"It has been fun for me," she said.

Reisig is teaching college-level AP physics online to 11 students in little towns across Montana, where the advanced science class isn't available. Some of his students are doing great, he said. What's frustrating for him is that for other students, keeping up with their online class "is not as pressing" as their regular classes.

"It's sort of on the back burner," Reisig said. "Some kids are right where they need to be, and some are two chapters behind."

One student who is "soaring" asks great questions, Reisig said, but unfortunately, the other online students are missing out on stimulating discussions they'd be exposed to in a regular classroom.

The Digital Academy's Currie said teachers can require all students to participate in online discussions. That can be an advantage over face-to-face classes, where usually a few students don't speak up, he said.

In the first semester, digital students and teachers have had to contend computer glitches, servers going down, schools blocking video files and other technical troubles. Teachers and counselors expect those will be worked out as the program gains experience.

The 10 most popular Montana Digital Academy classes this semester are Spanish I, digital photography, physical education, English I, psychology, health, French I, Web design, Earth science, and, tied for 10th place, Latin I and U.S. history.

Looking to the future, Currie said he hopes the Montana Digital Academy will expand by adding elementary and middle-school classes.

"One thing that's important to recognize is we're still new, still educating students, parents, teaches and (school) board members about what online learning can do for their students and their schools," Currie said. "I believe we're helping schools meet challenges in providing a well-rounded education."

At Bozeman High, Swoboda the skier said she plans to continue with the Digital Academy. Next semester she'll take German and Native American studies.

But Krupilnitskaya said she is eager to get back to regular classes with real live teachers and students.

"I like the talking, the social part," Krupilnitskaya said, laughing. "I've never had a bad teacher in this school."

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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