Recently, in my very progressive (in terms of educating its students) state of Idaho, our online state supplemental program, Idaho Digital Learning Academy (IDLA) has come under attack with a proposal from Governor Butch Otter to phase out its funding. IDLA is in a precarious position in that it is in essence a political entity – created and funded through state legislation. Add to this a somewhat confusing designation as neither a school nor a district, IDLA is outside the bounds of traditional school funding and protection. What this means is that IDLA is reliant on the whims of our illustrious politic and all that that entails. I do not mean to offend or malign those who serve the best interests of Idaho’s citizenry. Obviously we have had some outstanding support for innovative programs in the state or we wouldn’t have IDLA in the first place. However, I also believe there is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding online learning in general and IDLA in particular. Perhaps some clarification would assist those in power in providing material for thoughtful consideration before making a decision to undo what has up until now been a tremendously successful program, providing equitable education opportunities for each and every student in the state of Idaho.
First, supplemental online programs are not just curriculum providers, although that can be an added benefit. When implemented effectively, as I believe IDLA is, they are true partners that work within the fabric of a state’s educational system. IDLA, created through legislative action in 2002, has evolved into a valuable resource through careful and thoughtful leadership. It is truly one of Idaho’s gems and sets us apart from other states in innovation and leadership. IDLA currently serves the needs of 98% of Idaho’s districts (about 14,000 enrollments – and this number doubles every year). The 160+ courses that IDLA provides to Idaho schools are taught by highly qualified teachers in online environments that are interactive and provide ultimate flexibility to learners. Teachers for IDLA are certified, just as they are in any Idaho public school. They require the same knowledge and skills as traditional teachers with the added element of knowing how to teach effectively in online environments. Enrollments are limited to similar numbers as those in traditional classes so that students receive individualized attention. Curriculum is both purchased and created by talented teachers and staff who are knowledgeable about their subject-matter. The IDLA staff and its teachers complement traditional classrooms by filling critical gaps in educational opportunities for students in rural schools, providing technical support to learners and teachers through extended network and outreach programs, saving limited district resources, and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in education through transformative and innovative technologies. In addition, IDLA has been a valuable partner with my university (and others) in providing a rich resource for research initiatives into effective teaching practices (http://www.idahodigitallearning.org/bbcswebdav/xid-477912_4).
Although I am not as informed as I would like about a new entry into Idaho’s technology infrastructure, I have a feeling the Idaho Education Network (IEN) – a very recent commercial enterprise in the state created to provide broadband access to every school in the state in a partnership with Qwest and Education Networks of America (ENA) – may be the impetus for this sudden decision to disband the hard work of hundreds of individuals. My understanding is that IEN will provide VTC (Video Teleconferencing Capabilities) to schools for synchronous resource sharing. This form of learning is not true online learning in the sense that I understand it. It requires equipment (at great cost), a physical classroom, and a scheduled time for delivery. So for example, an instructor would lecture to one class while being broadcast to another (or several) classes across the state. Although there may be some value in shared resources, I see many disadvantages in this type of educational experience. It is a far cry from the interactive, flexible, individual, and transformative experience in a true online course. How will instruction reach a student in the hospital for example, or one that must travel for athletics? What about students who rely on IDLA to alleviate scheduling issues? For credit recovery? VTC will never be an adequate replacement for IDLA – in fact it is an outdated technology with a heavy cost that is completely unnecessary given the affordances of true Web-based technologies.
I believe part of the confusion stems from misinformation among government officials. In a recent article in the Idaho Statesment (http://ow.ly/12hCp) Governor Butch Otter and Superintendent Tom Luna contradicted each other regarding the role of IEN:
“Otter also says it’s likely the academy could end up duplicating the work of the Idaho Education Network, an agency established by the Legislature in 2009 to bring a dedicated broadband network to all 200 Idaho high schools by 2012. Broadband access would eventually allow schools in rural parts of the state to take classes in real time with instructors in other districts and even colleges. Otter says he doesn’t want to duplicate spending….
….But Luna said the Idaho Education Network doesn’t duplicate the academy. The network is building the broadband infrastructure for high schools, and the academy could be one of the agencies to use that network to bring its classes to students, Luna told the Legislature’s budget committee last week.”
It would be enormously helpful to have a clearer understanding of exactly what the IEN is and how it intends to function within the state. If the IEN is seen as a duplicate – then my question is, Why was the project approved in the first place? IDLA has been in existence since 2002 while the IEN was approved just last year. If anything, we should be examining the decision to fund IEN.
As with anything in the political realm there are often a multitude of complex and complicated systems pushing and tugging at each other. Caution should be exercised before making decisions that, in the short term, seem attractive, but in the long term may be detrimental in terms of cost and added value. It’s pretty simple really… if it looks to good to be true, it probably is. The IDLA is an investment in our state and its capacity to serve the educational needs of its citizens well into the future, with a network of Idahoans who believe in what they do, working for a quality education for every student. Why would we ever want to turn over the best interests of our state’s greatest natural resource, our children, to commercial interests? What are they thinking?
Learn more about how IDLA serves Idaho’s interests: http://www.idahodigitallearning.org/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_tab_group_id=_412_1