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Published in Print: April 27, 2011, as District Seeks to Sell Online Courses

District Seeks to Sell Online Courses

Auburn, Maine, system aims to market virtual courses to students in China

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Hoping to make money to help relieve property taxes, the Auburn, Maine, school department will try to become a University of Phoenix-style developer and marketer of online high school courses for foreign students.

The target market is China, Auburn Superintendent Tom Morrill said last week, just two weeks after unveiling an iPad 2-for-all-kindergartners initiative.

“This is completely new in the United States,” said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL. “This is the first example of selling internationally that I’ve heard of.”

Other countries, such as India, have viewed education as an “export opportunity” by creating digital content with international curriculum standards in mind, said Ms. Patrick, but this is the first example from a U.S. school district that she has seen.

“In tight budget times, I can certainly understand how districts are looking at new opportunities,” she said.

The school department, which oversees about 3,600 students, has hired a lobbyist to help push through a state bill allowing public schools to sell online high school courses to out-of-state and foreign students.

LD 938, which has been passed by the legislature’s education committee, would allow public schools to sell online courses out of state and out of country for an amount higher than what the courses cost to produce, or for a profit.

Those benefiting would be Auburn taxpayers.

“The idea is to pump some revenue back into the community to lower taxes and afford our students here the opportunity to network with students from foreign countries,” Mr. Morrill said. It’s too early to predict how much money the school department could make, he said.

But before Auburn can start selling online courses, the school department had to make sure it was legal.

Enter Portland, Maine, attorney Richard Spencer, also the lawyer for former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, who has worked in China. (That’s just a coincidence, Mr. Spencer said.)

The Auburn school department paid Mr. Spencer $7,558.

“It wasn’t for palling around in Augusta,” Mr. Spencer said, referring to the state capital. “Most of it was legal work rather than lobbying. I had to review the laws governing education, all of the regulations of the department. Then I had to meet with the department to see what they were willing to go along with.” After that he drafted the legislation.

In addition to making money for taxpayers, offering high school courses to foreign students “could in turn help broaden the education experience of our students, put them in contact with foreign students,” Mr. Morrill said. Those experiences could include student exchanges or Auburn students’ online collaboration with students in China and other countries.

Why China?

China became an interest, Superintendent Morrill said, because he and others know Mainers who work as educational administrators there. “It’s amazing how small the world is,” he said.

The idea came out of Auburn’s work, led by educator Mike Muir, in developing online courses for Auburn students, including courses for students who are at risk of dropping out or who have medical conditions that don’t allow them to be in school.

China invested $1 billion in online education from 2003 to 2007, said Ms. Patrick, of iNACOL, “and officials say that China is going to be the first country to completely mainstream online education, so they are talking to everybody about where they can get content,” including state virtual schools.

Ms. Patrick said she had not heard, though, of Chinese education organizations’ approaching individual districts.

The number of Auburn students taking online courses “is small,” Mr. Morrill said. “But courses online is certainly something that’s exploding.”

As Mr. Muir developed online courses, the superintendent said, “people began talking that with the portable design, the courses could go anywhere.” Former Maine residents living in China have told Mr. Morrill the idea “looks hopeful,” he said.

“We knew we couldn’t start until this was cleared up” with legislation, he said.

Courses offered, from science to the humanities, would meet Maine requirements just as those courses taken by Maine students. Foreign students could take a full semester or multiple semesters, Mr. Morrill said.

Vol. 30, Issue 29, Page 17

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