Prior to the workshop, a web portal was established to enable workshop participants to access a case study. This case provides background information and describes the multiple complexities involved with establishing a comprehensive distance learning program throughout the state of Alabama. Workshop participants were asked to read the case and come to the workshop prepared to discuss it. The assignment and the case study are provided below.
Alabama is developing and implementing a comprehensive distance learning program called ACCESS. This program has the ambitious aim of raising student achievement levels across all student demographic groups by providing courses for advanced diploma requirements, elective courses, AP courses, remedial courses, professional development, and multimedia resources.
The purpose of the Alabama case discussion is to analyze the complexities of this work in progress. The discussion we begin here online and then continue when we meet in a few weeks is a platform for considering the “macro issues.” We are not looking for consensus, but rather, are trying to convene conversation on the multiple dimensions of/perspectives on the issues. Please contribute your ideas and respond to the ideas of your online colleagues in ways that take the discussion of issues deeper.
Launching the Debate—Questions for Online Discussion
In its efforts to raise student achievement, Alabama lacks qualified teachers and required course offerings. How well is ACCESS as a solution-in-progress speaking to these aspects of this problem?
School reforms such as ACCESS often experience tensions between being seen as a top-down or bottom-up reform. How would you characterize ACCESS?
What does the context have to do with the design of ACCESS? If this case were set in a more populous and wealthy state (e.g., Connecticut), how, if at all, would you modify the design?
CASE STUDY: ALABAMA CONNECTING CLASSROOMS, EDUCATORS, AND STUDENTS STATEWIDE (ACCESS)
The state of Alabama has a challenging environment in which to educate and meet the needs of its 730,000 public school students. School systems must work in a context where more than 51 percent of the public school population is eligible to receive free and reduced lunch. Further, the state has many rural districts, where schools and school districts stand miles and miles apart from one another—literally spreading thin state resources for education to these many remote sites. Because of these issues, like many states throughout the country, Alabama has struggled to raise student achievement levels across all student demographic groups. All of these factors combine to create a situation where many schools and school districts—which have few students and thus small budgets, but must educate students according to state standards—have lacked sufficient resources (including qualified teachers, required course offerings) for adequately meeting the needs of all students.
This is especially problematic given that Alabama has a two-tiered high school diploma system. According to state policy, students can earn a regular diploma, taking one set of curricular offerings; or an “Advanced Diploma” by taking advanced level courses in the areas of language arts, math, science, and social studies. Historically, many Alabama high schools have not had the resources to offer students the requisite courses to obtain the Advanced Degree. In sum, students in Alabama have not had access to all the educational opportunities and resources necessary to successfully complete a high school curriculum. This has tremendous ramifications for these students’ ability to go onto higher education, earn adequate wages, and ultimately, compete in local, national, and global economies.
How to Deal with These Issues?
Given the national spotlight on increasing achievement levels, Governor Bob Riley convened a task force to study and make recommendations on ways to increase access to a full range of educational opportunities to all of Alabama’s students. The committee’s primary recommendation was to develop and implement a comprehensive distance learning program—appropriately called ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide)—throughout the state. ACCESS would provide courses necessary to meet the advanced diploma requirements; create additional online course offerings including elective courses, Advanced Placement courses, and remedial and enrichment courses; and provide both online professional development for teachers and access to multimedia resources to be used in their instruction. ACCESS is to accomplish this by building upon the infrastructure capacity the state and some districts had already created by implementing various types of technology systems throughout the state—with the ultimate goal of raising overall student achievement levels generally, and math and science in particular. The state officially began the program in 2005.
The State Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology was named to lead this statewide distance learning effort. The charge to create and implement this program created two fundamental challenges for state leaders: 1. The Task Force gave the state a task that was extremely large in scope and included a broad range of diverse issues that had to be addressed with this single distance learning school (e.g., course levels range from advanced to remedial; content includes core subject areas and electives). 2. A tremendous number of stakeholders are involved in creating such a program. Thus, representatives from all these groups needed to be included in the planning phases, and consensus had to be reached about very difficult issues in order to ensure successful buy-in during the implementation phase. Related to this issue, many Alabama districts prior to ACCESS had already implemented different technology systems within their home districts. The state team was thus left to integrate this balkanized system into one coordinated and comprehensive plan.
Seeking the One Best System: Bringing the Stakeholders Together
In recognizing the latter of these issues, the Governor’s Task Force—and, by extension, the Office of Educational Technology—actively recognized the need to develop a strong network and infrastructure to support both the initial and ongoing efforts of the distance learning program. To this end, they made a very concerted and deliberate effort to convene a variety of stakeholders (including individuals from school districts, universities, public television, vendor partners, the Southern Regional Education Board,
the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the Alabama Supercomputer Authority), both to gather the wisdom their experience had to offer and to facilitate future buy-in to the program. This group was charged with choosing the most effective method for developing the online programs and the best means of delivery.
This allowed the state to learn lessons from districts that had already implemented some aspects of technology systems (this included interactive videoconferencing and nonsystematic web-based courses) and build on those foundations. In addition to district resources, the state also had two universities (University of Alabama and Troy University) that had previously developed online courses for high schools in each of their respective areas. The state worked with administrators from each of these programs to utilize their resources and knowledge and to integrate them into the development and implementation of the ACCESS program. Crucial to the success of this initiative, though, is that the state remains the official, guiding voice—the central point of contact—of the ACCESS program (International Society for Technology in Education). From the very start of the program, the state, as the leader, recognized and encouraged input from these various other program stakeholders.
The ACCESS Program: From Pilot to Implementation
The ACCESS program allows for courses to be delivered in two ways: 1. through online media using a web-based system, and 2. via interactive videoconferencing (IVC) technology. The ACCESS program has integrated resources from an online library and other school-based resources into both of these systems. As it goes forward, the delivery method is morphing into a blended learning model, whereby courses are designed to utilize the advantages (in terms of both content and student participation) of both types of delivery. To spearhead the initiative, the Alabama Legislature appropriated $10.3 million for the program in October 2005, which allowed for the first phase of pilot implementation. The original emphasis on collaboration among stakeholders continued through this implementation. During this first phase, the school-based implementation team included a teacher, facilitator, school counselor, principal, and education technology coordinator, with a great deal of planning and coordination support from the State Office of Educational Technology.
The State Legislature re-funded the program at the original levels this fall, giving it the support to move into full implementation. As the program expands, moving beyond the pilot phase, the school-based team will remain the same. However, three regional “ACCESS Support Centers” are now functioning to supply a great deal of the support the State Office of Educational Technology provided during the pilot phase. Two of these
centers are housed at universities and one is at a local school system; their role is to assist teachers, schedule courses, and serve as liaisons between Department of Education staff and distance learning teachers.
The state resources and the careful, yet centralized planning effort by the State Office of Educational Technology have empowered a speedy implementation process. This funding has allowed for the courses to be offered free to participating public high schools in the state and has provided incentives for delivery schools to share teachers, as well as for teachers to learn course delivery using technology tools. In the fall of 2005, a total of 425 students were enrolled, with 21 course offerings and fewer than 8 percent of school districts sharing teachers via interactive videoconferencing. This fall, those numbers rose to approximately 4,500 students in more than 42 different courses. Roughly 44 percent of the school districts will be sharing teachers via IVC. To stimulate this growth, “The districts that have certified, highly qualified teachers, extra seats for students, and IVC equipment will receive funds for every student seat they deliver to schools outside their districts,” according to Dr. Melinda Maddox, AL State Education Technology Director.
With these subsequent phases of implementation, as part of the program, courses that had previously been offered by individual districts are currently being purchased, rewritten, and aligned to Alabama content standards with the help of the districts and university partners. Further, the Office of Technology is adding a plethora of new courses to the list it offers—including the full Advanced Diploma curriculum and elective courses, such as math, science, and foreign language courses. These offerings generally fall outside the traditional curriculum or the possible scope of courses one single school or district has the resources to offer, but are growing in importance as the nation strives to compete in a global economy where such skills are necessary. With the development of these courses, this online curriculum is allowing for a richness of curriculum that few public schools around the nation can match.
The state has made education and professional development for schools and teachers an integral part of both the implementation process and the ACCESS program itself. In rolling out the program, the state team made concerted efforts to educate the schools and the community “writ large” on the program, the resources it offers to all students in Alabama, and its potential to ultimately raise student achievement. The State Office of Technology used a Bell South Foundation grant to provide a communications consultant who was responsible for getting this message out to the public.
Within the school system, the program also includes a specific online professional development and resource tool that serves to educate teachers and administrators in both their support of students using the
ACCESS program and online tools to be integrated into regular classroom instruction. This resource portal, the Alabama Learning Exchange (ALEX), includes online materials, professional development, resources, and online learning materials. Specifically, easy access is available to rich materials, including full-text access and search of the Alabama content standards, as well as teacher created and reviewed lesson plans. ALEX coexists as an online resource for all teachers—traditional and virtual.
The Future of the Program: Expansion and Challenges
As the program moves into its second year, the partners continue to deal with the initial challenges and new ones that have arisen with the program’s implementation and expansion. The state, through very careful planning throughout each step of the process, has very successfully navigated the issue of stakeholder buy-in from such a large group of individuals, representing a broad range of interests. The initial issue of the breadth and depth of the scope of the needs intended to be met by the distance learning school remains. With the program still in its formative years, state officials continue to struggle to determine how to meet all of these needs (e.g., planning, resources, professional development), an issue that will likely remain a constant challenge.
One area of particular concern is the challenge of attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers in districts throughout the state. The virtual learning initiative has in part addressed this issue, as districts that might not have otherwise had access to a French teacher, for example, can now potentially access an instructor via an online course. However, there still simply is not a large enough overall supply of highly qualified teachers from which to choose, so the struggle continues to find and train teachers to take part in the initiative.
One other major challenge for the program has been showing tangible results quickly enough to continue justifying funds. Budget constraints mandate that, when initiatives are funded, proof must be provided that the money was well spent and did in fact advance student access and outcomes. To help facilitate this and to improve the program overall, the state hired the International Society for Technology in Education to provide an evaluation of this past year’s implementation. Surveys, interviews, and data analysis are currently taking place in the sites to determine whether the goals of the project are being met and to provide general feedback from observations of the courses in action. A report is expected in early 2007 and will help guide the future direction of the project. State leaders will take lessons learned from these evaluations to improve future iterations of the program.
At the start of this program, Governor Bob Riley stated that, because of the state’s mix of rural challenges and inequitable distribution of educational resources, some districts “aren’t able to offer classes in foreign languages or advanced math and science. Through ACCESS, we can use existing technology in our schools to open up a world of new opportunities for our kids.” Sustaining the high quality of the program and keeping momentum rolling are difficult as the program expands and time passes. However, Alabama has recognized that meeting this need is integral in providing the type of education necessary to improve student achievement levels and provide necessary skills that allow for individuals, states and the nation to be competitive in this global economy.
Alabama State Board of Education report 2004-2005
International Society for Technology in Education, “External Evaluation of Alabama’s ACCESS Distance Learning Initiative.”
Melinda Maddox, State Technology Director
T.H.E. Journal, July 2006
Reprinted and used with permission from Melinda Maddox and the State Educational Technology Directors Association