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.”
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.
The DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA plans to construct a collaborative online platform geared toward teacher professional development.
FLORIDA plans to focus the outreach efforts of its Florida Virtual School on rural students and more specialized courses. In addition, it hopes to foster more preservice online teacher training in several of the state’s teacher colleges.
GEORGIA plans to develop online professional-development courses focused toward STEM teachers, and expand the the Georgia Virtual School’s plans to offer more STEM courses. The state is also exploring replacing seat-time-based education systems with a proficiency-based pathway, especially for online credit-recovery students.
HAWAII plans to provide an open-source online platform where teachers can collaborate with each other to develop curricula and share resources. It also plans to create online professional-development opportunities and organizations.
MARYLAND plans to use RTT funds to build an online model to deliver to teacher-preparation institutions on the common-core curriculum. It will also focus funds on the Maryland Virtual School with the creation of eight online-only STEM courses.
MASSACHUSETTS plans to provide online courses for licensed teachers to help them earn an English-language-learner or special education teaching license. Also, the state intends to continue to establish a network for alternative secondary schools to develop and deliver online and hybrid courses for the state’s core subjects.
NEW YORK plans to use RTT funds to support online and blended (online and face-to-face) professional development and instruction. It also plans to focus online instruction on high-quality and credit-recovery courses.
NORTH CAROLINA plans to direct online instruction resources from the North Carolina Virtual School to students with limited brick-and-mortar teacher and course availability. It will focus particularly on math and science subjects.
OHIO plans to offer more online courses to students with social and economic disadvantages with an added focus on Advanced Placement courses, employing its recently passed credit-flexibility allowance.
RHODE ISLAND plans to build an online instructional-improvement system for teachers and is in the process of building a virtual learning network for students. It is also reviewing providers for a statewide virtual high school.
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.”
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.
A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2010 edition of Education Week