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High Schools : Alabama : ACCESS to Opportunity

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ENDING HIS PRESENTATION at a recent AlabamaState Board of Education work session, Perry CountySchools Superintendent John Heard declared, "ACCESS is notthe wave of the future. ACCESS is now."

One look at the spread of Alabama's distance learning program supports Heard's boastfulness. ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide) has grown from 24 pilot sites since its January 2006 launch to 170 sites in spring 2008. Enrollments have increased from 4,382 in 2006 to 9,508 in 2007; fall 2008 enrollment is anticipated to reach 18,000. Student growth has also generated teacher growth: from 81 teachers in 2006 to 174 in fall 2007, to a projected 500 or more participating teachers this coming fall.

ACCESS is transforming the way teaching and learning are conducted, delivering courses online and via interactive videoconferencing (IVC). The program also blends the two modes of instruction, whereby educators teaching online courses also provide tutoring to their students by videoconference. For some students, working strictly via the web is too impersonal. "[IVC] is so much better than an online course," says Tarrant High School student John Jones. "You actually get to see teachers and interact with them."

The program's student growth has generated teacher growth:from 81 teachers in 2006 to 174 in fall 2007, to a projected 50or more participating teachers this coming fall.

Thanks to these new means of course delivery, Alabama's high school students are able to take advanced placement and other classes that may have otherwise been unafforded to them. For example, Perry County is located in a rural area of the state, where high-speed internet was not much of an option before the implementation of ACCESS, part of whose budget goes to installing broadband connectivity. Students from all over the state testify to how the program has broadened their outlook on the future. In particular, because the nature of distance learning requires them to take responsibility for their education, students cite their own personal growth.

"The online class really helped me to be more prepared for college," says Iris Moore from Perry County's Francis Marion High School. "It wasn't something I was used to, but I know it was good for my academics." Andrea Dobynes, a recent Marion High graduate, says she initially wasn't interested in enrolling in an online course, but a scheduling conflict left her no choice. "It forced me to mature academically," she says. "I would recommend online courses to anyone willing to take on a challenge."

All teachers in the program have access to a learning management system for administering course content. The system allows them to incorporate assorted types of multimedia resources into their instruction. Additionally, via the LMS, teachers can communicate with students and program facilitators through e-mail, chat, discussion boards, and the news feature, where course-related information can be posted.

Tarrant City Schools has taken ACCESS a step further, using the program as motivation for adopting a 1-to-1 laptop initiative. "The initiative will afford more students the opportunity to take ACCESS courses," says the district's superintendent, Marti Rizzuto.

Perry County's Heard says that online courses have brought his rural students into contact with peers who come from other regions in the state as well as from different circumstances. This interaction has shown his kids that they are no different from students anywhere else. "They realize they ask the same questions as students in affluent areas of the state," he says. "This has been a motivating factor, and has allowed them to gain con- fidence in themselves and in their abilities."

Heard adds that the program has enabled students to envision and work toward a future they may not have considered possible before. "My students are receiving more individualized instruction, are taking ownership of their work and are tailoring courses to career choices," Heard says. "ACCESS allows you to grow, mature academically, and become a responsible student."

Melinda Maddox is director of technology initiatives for theAlabama Department of Education.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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