With a library card and a computer, patrons of northern Wisconsin libraries can open the door to hundreds of virtual classrooms. The topics range from creating web pages and apps to medical terminology, Spanish, playing guitar and grant writing.

The Gale online courses offer professional development, technical skills and personal development in a six-week time frame. Some are accredited, some offer certification. All are taught by professionals in the field.

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"The nice thing about Gale courses is you can correspond with the instructor outside of the lessons," said Sue Heskin, director of the Superior Public Library. "It's that interaction with a real person who's an expert."

The same classes, taken through the edtogo platform offered at many colleges, would cost $149 each. With a card from one of 29 libraries in the Northern Waters Library Services system, which includes the Superior Public Library and branch libraries in Solon Springs and Lake Nebagamon, the classes are free.

Northern Waters Library Services rolled out the Gale courses to its eight-county region Nov. 1. Since then, more than 150 classes have been taken by Douglas County patrons.

"It turns out we've had over 1,500 hours logged in since November," Heskin said.

The most popular classes in Douglas County have been learning Microsoft Excel, accounting fundamentals and sign language.

A bump in state library funding for 2018-19 led to the online course initiative, Heskin said.

"Libraries had to make the commitment to spend it on something that would help with workforce development," she said. "This is what our library system chose to spend that money on."

It's drawn attention from both local residents and folks in Minnesota.

"We have had a couple people from Duluth buy our library cards so they can get Gale courses," Heskin said.

While library cards are free for residents, anyone from out of state must pay $30 for one.

Most of the courses are appropriate for high school age students and older. The first two weeks, in particular, students must complete a certain number of sessions to remain in the class. Heskin found that out when a busy schedule caused her to get bumped from a Microsoft Excel course. She plans to re-enroll.

"I'd take the same class because I was very encouraged by what I saw the first two weeks, I just didn't have time to follow up on it," Heskin said. "I'm sure it happens to quite a few people."

Those who do get bumped don't have to wait long. New classes start every month. The next batch begins May 15.

Visit superiorlibrary.org for more information on the Gale courses.

Annual renewals

Another change rolling out at libraries in Douglas County is a revved-up renewal policy. Beginning in 2019, library cards must be renewed annually. Prior to this, patrons of the Superior Public Library and its branches renewed their cards every four years.

"Because we had people who were four years out, the library system is staggering their expiration dates," Heskin said. "Some people won't expire within the next year, but definitely within the next year."

There is no cost to renew a card.