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Colorado: Unlimited Learning

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With its many small and remote districts, Colorado is using online learning to educate kids in everynook and cranny in the state.

YOUR ZIP CODE shouldn’t determine the quality of your education,” declared Eric Feder, director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, as he kicked off the first meeting of Colorado’s E-Learning Task Force in 2001. Feder challenged the group to design a model of online learning that could be used by all schools to strengthen their educational offerings and close wide gaps in opportunity. The model was to address the spectrum of student need, ranging from credit recovery to accelerated programming,with a focus on collaboration with local schools.

Case Studies: ColoradoThus began Colorado Online Learning, currently used by more than half of Colorado’s 178 school districts to supplement local curriculum via 60-plus rigorous courses taught by highly qualified, licensed teachers.“COL makes it possible for us to offer so much more,” saidSteve Jones during the 2004-2005 school year, when he was servingas superintendent of the South Routt County School District(Soroco) in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. “I don’t know howsmall districts get by without COL or something like it.”

One hundred forty-one of Colorado’s school districts have fewer than 3,000 students; 61 have fewer than 300. A study conducted by COL showed that districts with fewer than 300 students are only able to offer a basic high school course menu (typically fewer than 50 courses), while students from large high schools have more than 200 courses available to them. This gap in opportunity makes it harder for students from rural and small schools to gain the knowledge and skills needed for success in post-secondary studies and to be competitive in the workforce.

A Rocky Start

The goal of narrowing this gap prompted Soroco to begin using online courses to supplement its local offerings. The district’s entry into online learning in 2002 was not without challenges, however, and it illustrates the collaboration needed to ensure high-quality, rigorous eLearning experiences.

Soroco began with the belief—one shared by many districts— that highly motivated, high-performing students don’t need much guidance. They thrive when allowed to direct their own learning, proceed at their own pace, and ask questions when needed, and thus they are highly successful in online courses. But most students are not of this variety, and external focus and direction can make a critical difference in their learning.

In the fall of 2003, Soroco had 40 students registered in one or more online courses. A computer lab, facilitated by school staff, was set up for the students to use according to assigned schedules during the day. Soroco parents were pleased that the school was offering more learning opportunities for their kids. The students were happy about it too. The online format allowed more choices, and it allowed them to work independently, without the close supervision ever-present in traditional classrooms.

But it became apparent to online teachers that Soroco students were not spending adequate time on their coursework. Some students were only studying a few minutes a day, then becoming distracted. Online staff contacted the on-site coordinator, who was unsuccessful in efforts to encourage students to apply themselves. The situation intensified when school administrators learned that only 53 percent of students completed and passed their online courses the first semester. South Routt Superintendent Jones and Soroco High School Principal James Chamberlin wanted to preserve the online option, but knew mechanisms had to be put in place to ensure the academic outcomes they sought.

First, they installed a lab facilitator, who monitored student work and, while encouraging and friendly, accepted no excuses for failure. Second, they raised the stakes by informing the students and their parents that they would be charged for the cost of failed courses. The message got through: The success (completing a course with a passing grade) of Soroco’s online students jumped to 96 percent the next semester.

“The story is about holding people accountable,” Jones says.“These are real classes, and not being successful is unacceptable.” That philosophy—in tandem with high-quality course content, exceptional teachers, real-time student progress reports, and consistent monitoring and communication by online and onsite staff—has made online learning an effective tool in Soroco.

An Uncertain Future

Most schools are judicious in registering students for online courses. Not only is expense an issue, but so is a reluctance to“lose” students to e-teachers. Schools generally only register studentswhose needs cannot be met on-site, such as students whoneed extra classes or have scheduling conflicts.

Nonetheless, the number of districts using COL’s online learning courses is growing—from 55 in the 2002-2003 school year to 95 in 2004-2005. In fall 2005, 10 Colorado districts brought in 16 or more registrants each, with Huerfano Re-1 in southern Colorado leading the way with 89. Those 10 districts had an overall success rate of 88 percent; three of them achieved a perfect 100. Total online registrations increased from 1,200 in 2002-2003 to 1,900 in 2004-2005. During that period, the percentage of registrations from rural and small districts rose from 25 to 75. Rural and small schools have recognized the value of online courses in increasing learning options, while large schools have used in-district resources to create their own online programming.

So what are online students studying? Foreign languages accounted for more registrations (26 percent) than any other subject in 2005. Social studies was second at 22 percent. The demographic breakdown was as follows: 74 percent of enrollees were high school juniors and seniors, with 60 percent female. Seventy- six percent were Caucasian/Anglo and 18 percent Hispanic/ Latin. Statistics on students’ longitudinal growth in specific disciplines are not available because money for research that aggregates the data of small numbers of students from a large number of schools has not been available. Also, privacy rules preclude districts from releasing this information to an online provider. But the end game is registrations—schools evaluate the quality of COL courses by registering students. Higher enrollment verifies that online courses are improving academic performance and closing gaps in opportunity.

These are real classes, and not being successful is unacceptable.
Steve Jones, South Routt County School District

Colorado’s unique environment, however, suggests an uncertain future for Colorado Online Learning. Because of a combination of circumstances—a 1992 state constitutional amendment that resulted in decreased funding for state programs; a reliance on high-tech jobs that are now being globally outsourced, which caused the state to be hit hard by the most recent recession; declining enrollment in rural schools; increasing costs associated with new state and federal mandates; a political environment that favors competition over collaboration—Colorado cannot appropriate money for a state virtual learning program.

Thus, COL is the nation’s only state-initiated online education program that has had to become fiscally self-sustaining. Originally funded by a federal grant, it is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization subsisting entirely on district-paid course fees.

Despite the policy issues, the challenges of implementation, and the angst of competing philosophies, online learning—in multiple evolving formats—is here to stay. It offers expanded choice and opportunity for students, parents, and schools. It closes critical opportunity and achievement gaps while contributing to powerful learning and healthy schools. As one online high school student says, “It’s allowed me to do things I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do.”

Timothy D. Snyder is the executive director of Colorado Online Learning.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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