Law & Courts

States, Districts Move to Require Virtual Classes

By Michelle R. Davis — October 17, 2011 6 min read
Kelsey Stephenson works on an online course from her kitchen after school. Her district, the Putnam County, Tenn., schools, requires that students take at least one online course to graduate.

Two years ago, Tennessee’s Putnam County school system adopted an online-learning graduation requirement for its high school students. But district officials realized that not all students had high-speed Internet access at home, or even computers, so they came up with a variety of options to allow students to fulfill the requirement.

The state of Tennessee already mandated that all students take a class on personal finance, so Putnam County put its version online, complete with the district’s own online teachers. Students can complete the course independently before they enter 9th grade; do it at school, in a computer lab with the support of an in-house coordinator, during their four high school years; or take the course in a computer lab that includes both an in-class teacher and an online instructor. Students can also fulfill the requirement with online Advanced Placement courses or online credit-recovery classes, says Kathleen Airhart, the director of the 11,000-student Putnam County schools, based in Cookeville, Tenn.

The goal is to make sure students get an online-learning experience in a low-risk, supportive environment, Airhart says. “The reality is, when a student leaves us, whether they’re going to a four-year college, a technical college, or going into the world of work, they’re going to have to do an online course,” she says. “This helps prepare the students.”

More districts and a handful of states are starting to agree with this notion. They’re requiring students to get some form of online learning on their résumés before leaving high school.

Kelsey Stephenson, right, with friend Bianca Watkins, splits her time as a high school junior between Upperman High School in Baxter, Tenn., above, and Cookeville High School in Cookeville, before turning her attention after school to working on online courses.

But concerns remain about issues of student equity, particularly in rural areas, where high-speed Internet access may be uncommon or difficult. Some cash-strapped school districts may also view such a state policy as an unfunded mandate.

“Districts have fixed costs and structures, … and equity can be a major issue,” says Bruce Umpstead, the state director of educational technology and data coordination for the state department of education in Michigan, the first state to make online learning a requirement for graduation. “But for us, [the requirement] was a signal to schools that online learning is a legitimate way of delivering instruction, and students are going to have to know how to use online learning to get ahead.”

State Measures

In 2002, Michigan began instituting its requirement that students complete 20 hours of online-learning experience to graduate. Students can start collecting hours in 6th grade, and most are satisfying the requirement through an online career-planning tool used to devise an Educational Development Plan, called for by state education policy, Umpstead says.

Initially, the intent was to have the online experience be a credit-bearing course. But concerns that such a requirement could be interpreted as an unfunded mandate by local governments—something prohibited by state law—resulted in a scaling-back, Umpstead says.

Other states have followed Michigan’s model. Alabama makes an online-learning “experience” one of the criteria for high school graduation. New Mexico has a similar requirement, but it provides students with the option of meeting the criteria through an alternative method.

Students at Upperman High School in Baxter, Tenn., participate in a class in their distance-learning lab while students from other schools attend the class virtually.

Idaho is weighing a more beefed-up requirement. The state board of education passed a proposal in September to require each student to complete two credits of online learning before graduation. To address equity issues, the proposal includes a plan for the state to buy some form of mobile-computing device for all high school students, but the expenditure would be offset by cuts to funding for teachers.

Now, lawmakers are seeking public comment, and it will go back before the board and then before the legislature in January 2012. However, the proposal is also slated to appear on the November 2012 ballot as part of a package of education changes for Idaho voters to weigh in on. That vote could ultimately derail the controversial plan.

“I don’t think there would be nearly the pushback we’re having if families and kids could make the choice, and if it wasn’t pulling dollars away from the teachers,” says Dick Cvitanich, the superintendent of the 3,800-student Lake Pend Oreille school district. Students in his district are spread over 52 mountainous miles near the Canadian border, and often, he says, it’s hard to get Internet access in some of those areas.

“We have kids that live in the valleys with a lot of snow and obstructions to getting service,” he says. “Some are on dial-up, some have no service, and some have [satellite] dishes. At school, we can create a level playing field in terms of access to technology, but when kids go home, that level playing field will, by and large, not exist.”

Online Options

While Cvitanich says he believes the concept is a good one, and would give students important experience with online learning, he argues it should be optional and shouldn’t force a choice between online courses and fewer face-to-face teachers.

Districts and schools are struggling to deal with the fairness of some of the requirements, says Matthew J. Wicks, the vice president of strategy and organizational development for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va.

Julie Mayfield teaches an advanced Spanish class at Upperman High School in Baxter, Tenn., while her online students taking the class from other sites listen and watch.

“The issue of equity exists,” he says. Working with community organizations and local libraries, as well as having school computer labs open before and after school hours can help, Wicks says.

“Does it make it an equal playground?” he says of such arrangements. “Absolutely not, but clearly there are things that can be done to provide sufficient access to be able to complete your course online.”

For example, in Putnam County, not only does the district offer a variety of options for meeting the online requirement, but it also provides a limited number of laptops that can be checked out by students on an as-needed basis, says Airhart, the district director.

She points out that schools must continue to adapt to such needs even if they don’t have an online-learning requirement. “The reality is, education is changing and we, as educators, need to change with it,” she says. Other opportunities are also on the way, says Wicks. For example, the cable-TV provider Comcast Corp. pledged to boost broadband access in their service areas nationwide as part of its deal earlier this year to take over NBC Universal. The company is now touting its Comcast Broadband Internet Essentials program, which offers Internet access for $9.95 a month to families with students who qualify for free lunches under the National School Lunch Program.

The company is also offering the families enrolled a “netbook-style laptop” for $150, access to free digital-literacy training, and free Internet-security software. However, the program would only aid students who qualify and who are in the Comcast service area.

In Florida, which is kicking off its own statewide requirement for an online-learning credit with this year’s freshman class, there’s no shortage of online options, says Mary Jane Tappen, the deputy chancellor for K-12 curriculum, instruction, and student services for the Florida Department of Education. The state boasts the nation’s largest online school, the Florida Virtual School, which served 122,000 students during the 2010-11 school year, and individual districts in the state often offer their own virtual courses as well. n

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as No Longer Optional

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