Some South Dakota legislators wonder whether a state-funded e-learning center, which provides free academic courses to an increasing number of high school students, is expanding too quickly and outgrowing its mission.
Earlier this year, the legislature approved $220,000 to build another videoconferencing studio and hire two more full-time teachers for the Center for Statewide E-Learning at Northern State University in Aberdeen.
The new studio and teachers will be used mostly to teach rural high school students hard-to-find courses, such as intermediate Spanish or calculus, via videoconferencing over the Digital Dakota Network, the state’s high-speed online infrastructure.
Rep. Rebekah Cradduck, a Republican who represents the Sioux Falls area, said she’s concerned NSU officials may be placing too much emphasis on teaching high school students, which she calls a “fringe benefit,” when teaching NSU students should take precedence.
“My measure of success is that we’re meeting the needs of the students at NSU,” she said. “I am just not convinced that we’re not growing just for the sake of growing.”
State Sen. William F. Earley, a Republican who also represents the Sioux Falls area, said he’s concerned that the state may not afford to keep paying for the e-learning courses.
“Is e-learning maintaining very small schools that should be merged with other schools?” he asked. Both legislators also worry about stifling competition for other e-learning providers.
NSU’s e-learning center provides most of the high school videoconferenced courses available; eight public school consortiums, including the Platte-based Dakota Interactive Academic Link, or DIAL, offer the rest.
DIAL charges several hundred dollars per student for a semester-long course, within range of what the other school consortiums charge. But NSU’s e-learning center undercuts all of them.
“You can’t compete with no cost,” said John Heemstra, DIAL’s assistant director of distance learning, of NSU’s free courses.
The NSU e-learning center, which trains NSU education majors and those in other fields in how to use technology, already has nine full-time teachers who teach high school students. This school year, the center offered 28 classes a day, with Spanish among the most popular. Class size is limited to 30 students, and no more than 10 of them can come from the same district.
Demand at the high school level for the e-learning center’s courses is growing; 296 students from 37 school districts took classes in 2001, the center’s first year, while 624 students from 69 districts, or nearly 40 percent of the state’s school systems, did so this year.
The e-learning center is funded through the state’s higher education budget. The center’s high school budget for this year totaled $536,000, or about $860 per student. That cost would have dropped to $639 per student if the center had reached its capacity of 840 high school students, said Erika Tallman, the director of the e-learning center.
However, she expects the center to reach capacity within the next year or two.
“This is not inexpensive,” she said. “However, it is more cost-effective than having a teacher in each district serving only a few students.
“Our mission is to serve the small, rural districts, not the large districts,” she continued. “Some of the concern of legislators is that we’re going to replace teachers, but the reality is that we’re not going to offer classes to large districts who have the teachers [they need].”
Robert T. Tad Perry, the executive director of the board of regents, which governs South Dakota’s six public universities, said the e-learning center is filling a pressing need, especially since the state is preparing to make its K-12 curriculum more rigorous.
The legislature also recently funded the South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship program, which requires applicants to have taken advanced courses in mathematics, science, and foreign language. Scholarship recipients receive $5,000 for tuition at a state university.
The e-learning center can help offer those advanced courses to high school students, Mr. Perry said.
“Don’t try to destroy something that’s working,” he said of the center’s critics.