Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Reps respond to education requirements

New online courses could pose problems, say lawmakers

Express Staff Writer

The Idaho State Board of Education voted unanimously last week to require high school students to take two courses online in order to graduate. The rule is subject to review by the Legislature in the 2012 sesssion.

The vote came as a result of a legislative approval of state schools Superintendent Tom Luna's Students Come First education reform package in April.

Luna said earlier this year that the series of three bills was designed to "stabilize the public education budget" by cutting money to schools for teacher salaries but using those savings to provide laptops or other mobile computers to students and setting up a merit-pay system for teachers.

The package also suggested requiring high school students to take eight courses online before graduating, a requirement that was vehemently opposed by the Idaho Education Association and many members of the public.

The requirement was eventually dropped before the bill passed the Legislature, and an Education Task Force hammered out online requirements this summer. Of the Task Force's 28 members, 17 were appointed by the superintendent, and the others were appointed by the Legislature, the governor and education stakeholder groups.

The new rule requires two online courses for high school students, beginning with the freshman class of fall 2012. At least one course must be "asynchronous," meaning students cannot communicate with teachers except through email.

The requirements themselves may be new, but Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said online learning is nothing new for many school districts.

"Our rural schools are already doing it," she said. "It's not brand new."

Blaine County Alternative School uses NovaNet, an online education provider, for most of its math classes. Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, said rural school districts use the Idaho Digital Learning Academy or other providers to provide specific classes that the school can't offer.

"It's great, so long as the instruction is high quality," she said. "It's a two-edged sword."

Lack of technology remains a problem in some schools, however. Pence said some rural schools in central Idaho have no Internet connection, though the schools in the 10 District 25 school districts are online.

A more immediate problem is the level of connectivity. It's one matter to have a few children or even a class using a computer lab, but Pence said she was unsure whether servers in many schools would be able to handle an additional load.

"It would be a problem if everyone in a classroom had a computer on and was taking a different online class," she said. "That's the sort of thing that gums up the works."

Jaquet said she was concerned that the state-mandated rollout of mobile computers such as laptops or iPads wouldn't coincide with the online requirement. Mobile computers were meant to be distributed to teachers, then students, in a four-year phased plan.

But as high school classes often contain students in several grade levels, Jaquet said that only some students in a given class might have the required equipment, posing problems for both teachers and students.

"If you're trying to use a mobile computing device to communicate with your students, and half of them don't have one, that's a problem," she said. "Nobody thought about this problem, with having different students in different levels."

The rule and the three education reform bills will go before the Legislature in January for further review, and Jaquet said the Technology Task Force is working on "tweaking" both in order to solve the technology rollout problem.

Pence said she hopes the Legislature will also address the question of standards regarding online courses.

The Camas County School District offers high school French and Spanish classes online, but Pence said the difference in quality between the two made it more difficult for the Spanish students to learn.

"The French class had a whole lot better setup for hearing sounds," she said. "They could hear tapes, or get [pronunciation guides] online. The Spanish class didn't have as much of that, and so the kids didn't have access to the pronunciation that they needed."

Pence said she wasn't sure whether she could support the rule when it comes before the Legislature, but she was sure that no matter what rule is eventually approved, there would be wrinkles to iron out in the first year.

"I think we're going to have a few problems," she said. "[But] the more experience people get with online teaching, the better the courses are going to be."

The entire reform package, including the requirement for online courses, will be the subject of a statewide referendum in November 2012.

Katherine Wutz:

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