Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Analysis Notes Virtual Ed. Priorities in RTT Winners

by Ian Quillen

While public education experts have for weeks debated which priorities weighed most heavily in the second round of the federal Race to the Top grant competition applications, a review by an online education organization shows most of the 10 winning states submitted strong online learning proposals.

Susan D. Patrick, president of the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, said a wiki document released by the organization highlighting the virtual learning components in all 19 finalists’ applications shows the winning states were ready to use RTT funds to offer more online opportunities and make needed state policy revisions.

Further, she said, those changes are happening in regions that have been traditionally hesitant to embrace online learning. While all 16 state members of the Southern Regional Education Board, which has succeeded in encouraging its members to embrace online learning, make up more than half of the 27 states with statewide virtual schools, Ms. Patrick said she was more encouraged by the applications of states outside that region.

“Florida certainly has been a leader [in online education] for a long time,” Ms. Patrick said. “But that’s not new information. So it was really nice to see Massachusetts, New York, and some others move not only in the direction of online learning, but to considering the policy shifts.”

Competency-Based Focus

Much of those shifts involve replacing traditional seat-time requirements—which mandate the hours a student must spend in class to gain credit for a course—with competency-based requirements that allow students to progress at varying paces through a course depending on their mastery of the subject.

Massachusetts’ application highlighted already-existing efforts to direct federal stimulus funds toward creating competency-based online and blended learning courses that mix face-to-face and virtual lessons for alternative school students. New York is noted in the iNACOL report for the statewide technology plan it adopted in January that calls for exposing all students to online and blended learning opportunities.

Georgia’s plan indicated an interest in completely replacing seat-time standards, both in online and traditional classes. Rhode Island’s pointed to a similar, already-established system.

And in Ohio's application, the state’s Credit Flexibility Plan, which is being extended to all the state’s schools for the first time this fall, allows students to gain high school credit through alternative experiences that include online learning, internships, educational travel, or dual enrollment in a college course.

Ms. Patrick did not say she believed Race to the Top evaluators were looking specifically for those policy shifts. But Thomas D. Rutan, Ohio’s associate director of curriculum and instruction, said he wouldn’t have been surprised.

“I can only surmise that it was certainly looked upon favorably,” Mr. Rutan said. “It’s sort of like a new arsenal for the schools to provide opportunities for students to do things that were not previously available. Online learning is the classic example.”

Options for Students
Mr. Rutan reasoned that online and blended learning would be favorite options for students who utilized the course flexibility policy. He pointed to the launch last week of the OhioLearns! Gateway program, an extension of a state program initially geared toward its postsecondary institutions, which will provide all high school students with a catalog of 40 Advanced Placement courses from which to choose. The launch follows Ohio’s promise in its application to use funding from the grant to offer AP courses to underserved populations.

Of the other winning states that promised specific online course offerings, Ms. Patrick noted, many did so with a focus on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

New York, Georgia, and Maryland’s applications all reference using online classes both as professional development to create more STEM instructors and courses for students. Maryland’s includes the use of RTT funds to develop eight STEM courses over a four-year period for the state’s virtual high school, either directly or through a contractor.

Ms. Patrick suggested states might be turning to online education because of a dearth of qualified STEM instructors in brick-and-mortar schools.

But Colleen P. Semeret, Maryland’s assistant state superintendent for instruction, said such thinking wasn’t the impetus for her state’s focus on STEM in online education.

“I think that’s a very logical assumption, but that wasn’t first and foremost in our minds,” said Ms. Semeret, who added that one of the most practical reasons to teach STEM online would be to connect students in rural districts with a wealth of in-state STEM resources near the nation’s capital. “All of this online [focus] is not just online learning courses for kids, but it’s really online resources for teachers to be able to open up their classrooms.”

Early Adopters
Themistocles Sparangis, the chief technology director for the 678,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, said he also noticed the STEM trend in iNACOL’s document. But Mr. Sparangis, whose district utilizes a variety of online learning providers, says that’s not an indication states are acting under the belief that online education is suited for STEM education.

“Does online education help STEM any more or less than language arts or anything like that? I don’t think so,” Mr. Sparangis said. “It’s just the fact that science and math and technology tend to go hand in hand. … I think it’s because the people involved are already early adopters [of online learning].”

Mr. Sparangis said that, while iNACOL’s review of RTT applications may be eye-opening for general followers of education policy, its general findings should not be surprising to those already working within virtual education.

Ms. Patrick, however, expressed enthusiasm at the quality of virtual education components within the applications, and even surprise at those from states such as Hawaii, which was the only state to include provisions about building cloud-computing-based online resources for teachers.