High schools to provide more online course options

High schools to provide more online course options

(Ala.) Every high school in Alabama may be required to offer virtual education options for students beginning in 2016-17 under a bill pending before Gov. Robert Bentley.

SB 72, which passed the Legislature late last week, would also create a task force to study the state’s current online education program and make recommendations on how it could be improved.

“Probably the biggest benefit is that it allows (students) to work at their own pace in many cases,” said Allison Powell, vice president of New Learning Models, a program of the non-profit research organization International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

“It (also) gives kids more options,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “Not every school can offer every class, and this way kids have more options on what classes they’re taking, and they can take them from a variety of different teachers.”

Many schools already employ some level of virtual learning, especially in Midwestern and North East states where harsh winters often force schools to close multiple times each year. Districts in states including Rhode Island, Oklahoma and Indiana have turned to assigning online coursework as a means to keep students caught up or to make up for too many declared snow days.

According to a study published by Evergreen Education Group, a Colorado-based education-technology consulting firm, 26 states had virtual schools operating in 2014, and 30 states and the Districts of Columbia had statewide, full-time online schools operating during that same year.

Alabama is one with its own statewide online learning option for both middle and high schools. Through a program known as Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide, or ACCESS, students can take classes that aren't available at their local schools, such as advanced placement courses or electives, via live video feeds of classroom teachers or standard web-based courses.

As of last week, more than 27,000 students were enrolled in ACCESS courses, officials said.

The program is not without opposition, however, and the state has received complaints that the quality of the courses offered online is much lower than what a student would receive in a traditional classroom setting.

This is the type of issue that the task force created by the bill would address. Members, representing superintendents, school boards, administrators, teachers and technology practitioners, would seek to realign the funding, structure and curriculum of the ACCESS program, according to the legislation.

Although the task force would focus on ACCESS, sponsor of SB 72, Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, has suggested that districts explore different program options or even create their own. Virtual school students would still be required to take the same standardized assessments as other students at their local brick and mortar school.

Supporters of virtual learning say that a good online program can provide many benefits to students, such as opportunities for gifted students to work ahead at their own pace or remediation for students who fall behind. It can also benefit students who can’t attend regular classes due to long-term illness or other special circumstances such as high-level athletic training and competition, for example.

Advocates admit that such programs won’t benefit all students, as not every student learns in the same way.

“Some kids are going to be really successful and some aren’t,” Powell said. “We can’t say that it’s only the advanced kids that are going to do well because some of those taking AP classes do struggle and want the support of an in-person classroom teacher, while some students with special needs excel in an online learning environment.”

“They have to have the motivation and some kind of a support system to make sure that they are logging in and keeping up with the content,” she said.

The bill had not been signed by the governor as of press time.