Published Online: February 8, 2011
Published in Print: February 9, 2011, as E-Course Plan Raises Equity Concerns

E-Learning Requirement Could Hurt Idaho Students Without Internet

Idaho residents listen to public testimony at the Statehouse in Boise last month on education proposals before the state legislature. One plan would require students to take online courses.
—Chris Butler/Idaho Statesman/AP

Idaho Proposing to Make Online-Only Coursetaking a Graduation Requirement

A lack of technological infrastructure in northern Idaho will put students there at a disadvantage under proposed state education reforms that call for students to take online classes every year to graduate, school officials say.

“Applying this plan to the school district will be a considerable challenge,” Dick Cvitanich, the superintendent of the 3,700-student Lake Pend Oreille school district, told a local newspaper, the Bonner County Daily Bee. “Many of our students don’t have Internet access, and many others only have access to dial-up. Speaking as a former user of dial-up, I know that’s not ideal.”

Students in other regions with high-speed Internet access at home would have an advantage over students without such access at home, forcing them to set their schedules around when they could use school computers, he said.

A small number of states already have similar online-course requirements in place, said Mathew J. Wicks, the vice president of strategy and organizational development at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va. Both Michigan and Alabama make an online-learning experience one of the criteria for high school graduation. New Mexico has a similar requirement, but Mr. Wicks said it includes a way to opt out and meet the criteria without using online educational experiences.

Mr. Wicks said he believes more states will be moving to add an online-course requirement for high school graduation, particularly as such requirements are revised, forcing those states to deal with the equity issues Idaho is now facing.

But he said those concerns shouldn’t hold states back from trying to give students the online-learning experiences they need to prepare them for the future.

There are several ways to address issues of inequity in which, for example, some students may have their own computers and Internet access and others either don’t or have only dial-up rather than high-speed options, Mr. Wicks said.

Providing students with the option of working at school before or after regular hours, or having students work at home on aspects of a course that don’t need video or graphics—such as participating in online, asynchronous discussion boards—may help relieve such problems.

“I get concerned if we’re saying we can only do things to the lowest common denominator,” Mr. Wicks said. “Those issues are real and you can’t ignore them, but they’re also going away more and more.”

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'The Intended Effect'

Michigan remains concerned about equity issues, said Bruce Umpstead, the state director of educational technology and data coordination at the Michigan Department of Education. But the state’s requirement that students have a 20-hour online-learning experience leaves the door open for a wide variety of methods to meet the criteria, he said.

In addition, students can satisfy the requirement any time between grades 6 and 12, providing even more flexibility. “It was really meant to be a signal that online learning is a major part of the future,” Mr. Umpstead said. “It has had the intended effect, signaling to schools that they need to look for other options for delivering educational experiences.”

Though Mr. Umpstead said the state has struggled to track exactly how students are fulfilling the online-learning requirement, he said many students are taking full-blown online courses from the state’s Michigan Virtual University. Others are using an online component of the state’s required Educational Development Plan, which every student must craft to encourage thinking about future education and careers.

In Idaho, meanwhile, state schools chief Tom Luna outlined an aggressive overhaul in education last month as he called for more technology in the classroom and a pay-for-performance plan for educators.

The plan includes supplying 9th graders with laptop computers and requiring them to take two online courses a year. The proposal also includes increasing the student-per-classroom ratio from 18.2 to 19.8 over the next five years.

Officials with the Bonner County Economic Development Corp., in Idaho, want a fiber-optic network this year, but said it likely won’t reach students outside more densely populated areas.

Vol. 30, Issue 20, Page 9

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