Independent School District 196 is expanding a popular online class for some of its most advanced middle school students.

School board members voted Monday to offer the global studies class next year to students entering eighth grade.

The class, launched two years ago as a pilot program for sixth graders, uses primarily online instruction combined with occasional site visits from a teacher and one gathering each trimester of all of the class' students.

Teaching and learning director Steve Troen said the class is for "the top layer" of students in the district's gifted and talented program. There aren't enough of those students at any one building to justify the class, but offering the class online allows about 30 students districtwide to enroll.

Troen said most of the students who started with the program as sixth graders have stuck with it.

"The majority of students that enrolled in it enjoy that experience," Troen said. "They feel they're being stretched and challenged."

Teachers use a mix of videos and online interaction to teach their lessons. Students can also have online discussions with other students. The students don't all take the class at the same time of day. They are in the classroom whenever their classmates are attending their own social studies class.

Students are supervised while they are in the class, but they have some freedom to decide what work they do at school and what they take home. That takes some discipline on the part of the students, but Troen said the freedom appeals to some students.

The district no longer offers the sixth-grade class that started this process, but Troen expects the seventh grade version of the class to remain. Once students get to high school there are more opportunities to challenge students, so there are not yet any plans to expand this particular offering to the high school level.

The district is still looking for other ways to use technology to expand offerings, though. Troen said there isn't as much need for this kind of online course in math, where there are more high-level opportunities for students, and science courses present challenges because of the need for lab time. Language arts might be a candidate down the line, but Troen said with writing it is easier to offer challenges to individual students.

"Really we felt that the hole was in social studies," he said.