Backers of “e-learning” in Arizona are trying to maintain their state government’s momentum in helping provide digital curricula to schools across the state, even as the state’s economic headwinds stiffen.
Arizona’s e-learning task force and a digital-curriculum pilot project for middle schools stem from an initiative approved by the legislature in 2005 that centered on developing and eventually expanding the use of digitally delivered curricula for Arizona schools and colleges.
The initiative is seen as an engine for business development, workforce improvement, and research in a state that is home to several nationally prominent e-learning institutions and companies.
But recent slumps in housing sales and construction—important revenue sources in the state—have slammed tax receipts, a situation expected to get worse before it gets better.
Throughout this year’s legislative session, the Republican-controlled legislature has been trying to bridge a budget gap for the next fiscal year that is currently estimated at $1.9 billion to more than $2.2 billion.
Although advocates of e-learning in Arizona—including state officials and groups representing school boards, technology, and e-learning businesses—say the state needs to make heavy investments in helping its rural schools have robust access to the Internet, they have instead focused on crafting policies and on limited experiments that will keep the initiative advancing during the expected lean years ahead.
“We are writing our technology standards” for education, said Cathy J. Poplin, the state education department’s deputy associate superintendent for educational technology and a member of the e-learning task force set up in 2006.
She said the department is also launching an “integrated-data Web portal to enhance student learning” by giving advice to teachers on lesson planning and by providing videos about formative assessment, in which teachers, usually using online tools, rapidly gauge students’ understanding while in the middle of lessons or units.
The e-learning agenda has strong support from the Arizona School Boards Association, said Janice C. Palmer, a lobbyist for the Phoenix-based group.
She said that several districts have invested through their local budgets in creating digital-learning environments, but that not all districts could afford to.
“We very much support e-learning and really trying to bridge the digital divide between suburban, urban, and outlying districts, and bringing more educational resources to rural areas,” Ms. Palmer said. “The budget scenario right now has made things interesting.”
This year, the state education department plans to spend $3 million to provide a digital math curriculum and laptop computers for students and teachers in several middle schools.
The math pilot, which would also include professional development for teachers, would be financed out of a proposed $5.5 million state appropriation, would involve up to 10,000 students in 10 school districts. Participating students would be given laptops and allowed to take them home.
The pilot project will proceed rapidly once its funding is approved by a joint legislative budget committee as expected, Ms. Poplin said. The primary vendor must be a curriculum provider—not a hardware manufacturer—and proposals must be grounded in what is deemed scientifically based research. Ms. Poplin said the state received proposals from 12 vendors and has narrowed the field to two.
“What we’re doing here is an incredible opportunity to be able to show... at least a year’s increase of student scores, from year to year, by the implementation of digital software and one-to-one computing,” she said.
Though officials are optimistic, they have not forgotten that one year ago, when the economy looked better than it does today, the legislature belatedly retracted $1 million already appropriated for an e-learning pilot project at one high school for which school districts had already applied.
Meanwhile, a couple of bills affecting the e-learning initiative were offered in the current legislative session.
One, an amendment tacked on to a bill on student bullying would would have given school districts greater flexibility in issuing bonds for the purchase of instructional technology, rather than funding it only through state allocations for curriculum materials, including printed textbooks, as is now done.
The amendment also would have required school districts to forego textbooks if they invest state money in digital curricula and laptops for every student, unless the digital curricula failed to meet state standards. But the Senate narrowly rejected that amendment last week.
Another pending bill surprised advocates of e-learning by seeking to require a review by the end of 2008 of the effectiveness of Arizona’s e-learning task force, which was established with a 10-year mandate.
Public Backing Sought
Theodore C. Kraver, a longtime activist for e-learning in the state, said he believes the task force would pass the review. Such a stamp of approval, he believes, would build public support for greater funding for e-learning, including the costly item of better broadband access.
“Once there is light at the end of the tunnel, the funding will be available,” said Mr. Kraver, the president of the Phoenix-based nonprofit group eLearning System for Arizona Teachers and Students.
A former aerospace engineer, Mr. Kraver said he has lobbied for e-learning for 20 years, and “frankly we are at a tipping point.” He said he approaches the legislative process “logarithmically—we start with an infinitesimal piece [of progress] and double it every year, and in 10 years we’ve got it all.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2008 edition of Education Week as Arizona E-Learning Advocates Press to Keep Initiative’s Momentum