Web partnership could help improve distance education

WEB-BASED COURSES: Program for rural students faces challenges.

The Associated PressSeptember 11, 2011 

JUNEAU -- A new partnership among Alaska schools could help improve distance education in the state, ultimately providing students in remote areas the classes they need to qualify for a new state scholarship program.

The next steps for Alaska's Learning Network, the school consortium that has begun offering online classes, will be discussed by an advisory board later this month.

Significant challenges remain, including the needs for funding to maintain and expand the program, now working under a one-year startup grant. Less than reliable Internet connectivity in parts of rural Alaska also remains an issue.

But the network's director of distance learning, Woody Wilson, said the program is necessary if Alaska is to improve quality of education. He doesn't argue with those who believe it's better for students to have a teacher in the classroom, but said that scenario doesn't always exist in the far reaches of Alaska -- at least not with the same classes available in cities like Anchorage.

Students today are "so digital," he said, noting that many middle schoolers communicate with friends via texting and question the need for cursive writing, once a basic in schools.

"They're not into handwriting, but they are into the business of using computers," he said.

The network is offering 19 web-based courses through the Anchorage and Wrangell school districts, including classes students need to qualify for Alaska Performance Scholarships. Wilson said about 140 students, from 20 schools are enrolled in classes through the network this year, even though districts received late word about the program.

Roxanne Mourant, state technology coordinator with Alaska's Department of Education and Early Development, said it is the group's "hope and intention" to offer more courses in the future through various mediums, including email and video and web conferencing. She said students may not have a teacher qualified in the subject area in the classroom with them but they do have someone on site to help them stay on track.

One of the network's main goals is to fill the need for highly qualified teachers and rigorous courses currently unavailable in rural areas. Rural high schools are often small -- ranging from a handful to a few dozen students -- and have trouble attracting and maintaining teachers, particularly those qualified to teach more specialized courses like foreign languages or the various sciences.

In Barrow, high school principal Bev Gillaspie said she lucked out when she learned a teacher who had been hired for language arts also was qualified to teach German. That teacher is now conducting classes for both. "She's wearing two hats," Gillaspie said, "and wearing them quite well."

Alaska educators have grappled for years with the concept of distance education, and schools have taken advantage of correspondence programs and partnerships with local colleges to provide students access to classes they want or need. The issue has again come to the fore as officials look for ways to ensure that all students will have access to the classes they need to qualify for a state-funded performance scholarship, an initiative pushed hard by the governor. The scholarship program course requirements are still being phased in.

Amy Larsen, who is with the Anchorage School District's online learning department, said teachers here several years ago developed an online curriculum for Alaska studies, a class now being offered through the network.

Students who sign up are given pacing guidelines and have access to the teacher, with the teacher often posting office hours when students can call. She said they also can communicate online or via email.

Teachers who apply for the positions agree to take up to 25 additional students. She said eight off-site students have enrolled in the program this year.

Larsen said the district has spent years developing its own online program because of the "huge" demand from students who sought greater flexibility due to their schedules, wanted to pick up an elective or maybe needed to repeat a class.

It's this kind of innovation that the network hopes to tap into. Federal recovery act money went toward establishing the network, with funds also being used to help districts cover the cost of picking up the extra classes. Students themselves are not charged.

Mourant said the issue of Internet connectivity is being handled one district and site at a time. She said the network conducted speed tests and worked with the local providers to ensure that priority is given for the classes when needed.

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