District Seeks to Sell Online Courses

By Bonnie Washuk, Sun Journal, Maine (MCT) — April 26, 2011 3 min read

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.

Copyright © 2011, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Education Week Staff Writer Katie Ash contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2011 edition of Education Week as District Seeks to Sell Online Courses


Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD
Equity & Diversity Live Online Discussion What Is Critical Race Theory and Why You Shouldn't Shy Away From It
In this episode of A Seat at the Table, Peter DeWitt sits down with lawyer-educator Janel George and EdWeek reporters, Stephen Sawchuk and Andrew Ujifusa, as they discuss what’s at the heart of the critical

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

International Global Test Finds Digital Divide Reflected in Math, Science Scores
New data from the 2019 Trends in International Math and Science Study show teachers and students lack digital access and support.
3 min read
Image of data.
International Pre-COVID Learning Inequities Were Already Large Around the World
A new international benchmarking highlights gaps in training for digital learning and other supports that could deepen the challenge for low-income schools during the pandemic.
4 min read
International Part of Global Trend, 1 in 3 U.S. High Schoolers Felt Disconnected From School Before Pandemic
UNESCO's annual report on global education progress finds countries need to make more effort to include marginalized students, particularly in the United States.
4 min read
International How Schools in Other Countries Have Reopened
Ideas from Australia, Denmark, and Taiwan can help American district and school leaders as they shape their reopening plans.
11 min read
Students at the Taipei American School in Taipei, Taiwan, perform The Little Mermaid in full costume and masks.
Students at the Taipei American School in Taipei, Taiwan, perform The Little Mermaid in full costume and masks.
Photo courtesy of Dustin Rhoades/Taipei American School