On the Wave of the Future: Alabama's New Distance Learning Program Is Set to Transform Teaching and Learning in the State

Article excerpt

ALABAMA HAS EMBARKED on an ambitious new distance learning program, with the goal of providing every student with the education necessary to be successful in the global economy. The central concept of the plan is to offer underserved schools with advanced courses and additional course electives through a statewide network. The program has been blazed by the vision and leadership of Gov. Bob Riley, the Alabama Board of Education, and Superintendent of Education Joe Morton.

In the fall of 2004, Gov. Riley appointed a task force, led by the Alabama Department of Education, to bring all stakeholders together to plan a distance learning initiative. Partners included universities throughout Alabama, local school districts, Alabama Public Television (www.aptv.org), the BellSouth Foundation (www.bellsouthfoundation.org), the Southern Regional Education Board (www.sreb.org), the Appalachian Regional Commission (www.arc.gov) and the Alabama Supercomputer Authority (www.asc.edu). The task force initiated a multiphased program titled ACCESS Distance Learning (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide; www.accessdl.state.al.us). The initiative aimed to move the limited distance learning occurring from the disparate school system level to a statewide level, develop state policy, create partnerships with corporate sponsors, and collaborate with multiple universities and school systems.

As we move on the fast track toward implementing statewide distance learning in Alabama, we will have gone from our fall 2005 total of 425 students enrolled, with 21 course offerings and fewer than 8 percent of school districts sharing teachers via interactive videoconferencing (IVC), to potentially more than 4,500 students in more than 42 different courses (either IVC or web-based) in the fall of 2006, along with 44 percent of the school districts sharing teachers via IVC.

According to Martha Donaldson, distance learning administrator with the Education Department, "Combining challenging courses, excellence in teaching, and variety in course offerings, Alabama's ACCESS Distance Learning initiative meets the unique curricular needs of students statewide."

Initial funding for the program was provided by the Alabama Legislature in October 2005, at $10.3 million dollars, with the same amount appropriated for a second year. Thanks to the funding, ACCESS Distance Learning courses are being provided free to public high school students. The funds also provide incentives for delivery schools to share teachers, as well as for teachers to learn course delivery using technology tools.

Blending Technologies

The task force examined a number of distance learning models, including the Florida Virtual School (www.flvs.net), and by implementing parts of each one, created a hybrid that is suited for delivery by state government. In addition, the state is building an extensive support structure for teachers and students, applying expertise from higher education and other stakeholders.

[GRAPHIC OMITTED]

One of the goals of the ACCESS Distance Learning program is to adopt several strategies that leverage the existing resources in Alabama. Research shows that 115 of the 470 high schools in the state have invested in H.323 IVC labs.

One of the strategies at work is to connect all 115 existing labs in order to provide broadband connectivity (10 Mbps) to the state educational network, and to enable quality of service (QoS) network connectivity to other IVC sites in the state through the Alabama Supercomputer Authority. Since no special point-to-point dedicated lines are needed, this is an added incentive for districts to participate. Additional internet broadband connectivity can be used not only for distance learning, but also for internet usage and transmission of secure data to the state. By the end of the second year of implementation, we plan to install broadband connectivity in all 470 high schools. …