Sweet Home Alabama
Alabama Students Have Open Access to a New World of Learning
By Mark GuraHead south to Ozark City, Ala. -- population 15,119. This "City for All Seasons" boasts a Wal-Mart Supercenter, two Dairy Queens and a Goodrich Tire dealer. Mayor Bob Bunting calls Ozark "the best kept secret in the South, for that matter, the best small city in the United States."
Hometown hyperbole? Not when it comes to education. True, Ozark only has one high school, one middle school, two elementary schools and an early childhood education center. But it does offer its students world-class opportunities to learn. This is something its residents couldn't have dreamed of a few years back. Now, however, as part of Alabama's Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide (ACCESS) program, Ozark's Carroll High School distinguishes itself as more than the home of the Eagles football team. Students at this school experience material and challenges that some of the best schools in our nation's largest cities would be hard-pressed to set before their students.
Up there on the Ozark school system's sparse Web site, sitting proudly above links to the school calendar, bus routes and code of conduct is its mission statement. It's a statement that is echoed on Web sites across the nation. "Ozark City Schools is committed to providing a positive learning environment that encourages all students to grow intellectually, emotionally, physically, morally and socially." A lofty sentiment, but how does a small, rural town like this actually go about providing that?
The answer is ACCESS, Alabama's exemplary distance learning initiative. Unlike virtual school initiatives that attempt to replace or supplant brick and mortar schools, ACCESS builds on the state's existing real world education system, enhancing, enriching and taking it to places never previously imagined.
"The driving philosophy behind ACCESS is to provide all Alabama high school students with the same opportunities to excel," says Alabama Gov. Bob Riley. "Using technology to provide those opportunities not only increases the rigor of instruction, but it also acclimates students to the use of technology and prepares them for a 21st century workforce."
The Alabama Supercomputer Authority (ASA) is the networking technology partner for the ACCESS project. ASA is working to upgrade the Internet connectivity to participating schools and school systems through the Alabama Research and Education Network (AREN). "ASA works very closely with the schools to assure that every school system has an equitable level of network connectivity that will allow them to deliver and receive courses at a very high level of consistency and quality," says Alabama Supercomputer Authority CEO Randy Fulmer. "This is especially important to our most rural school districts and in meeting the goal of ACCESS to allow students equitable access to courses."
ACCESS has placed high-end interactive video conferencing equipment in participating schools, enabling students to connect with some of the best teachers around the state through synchronous sessions. It also offers asynchronous Web courses. ACCESS has placed tablet PCs in the hands of students and invites them to download a variety of specialized learning software, including collaborative note-taking, student response tools, content replay, an interactive lab simulation program and an equation plotter with calculus features.
The result is a powerful new set of learning experiences available to students. These new courses vastly increase student contact with inspired, adept teachers, advanced and specialized content and to one another ? a vital dimension to 21st century learning. This emphasis on collaboration, teaming and social skills mirrors the environment students will enter after graduation. Dr. Joseph B. Morton, Alabama's superintendent of education says, "By leveraging existing resources and expanding ACCESS distance learning, we will deliver a broad range of courses to students statewide, including our hardest-to-serve areas. It will help bring 21st century classrooms into all high schools in Alabama."
Denise Oliver, education and outreach director for the Alabama Supercomputer Authority, agrees. She says, "It has been gratifying to me as an educator on the 'network side' to watch the connectivity piece of ACCESS develop." She adds, "Working at a very rapid pace, the Alabama Supercomputer Authority (ASA) is collaborating closely with the Alabama State Department of Education and the governor's office and is upgrading connectivity to the schools so they can deliver interactive video conferencing and online courses to students. This connectivity upgrade will enable teachers to incorporate a media enriched curriculum into interactive video conferencing and online classes and enable students to receive the best possible distance learning experience."
Carroll High students can now choose from a body of courses that rival the offerings of any school, anywhere. While Spanish is the only foreign language taught in-house, through ACCESS students can now study Chinese, French, German and Latin as well. Offerings like advanced placement (AP) calculus, AP English literature and composition, AP macroeconomics, and marine science are courses now available that the school could only dream about staffing or equipping on its own. With ACCESS, students can learn these subjects from some of the best teachers and in the company of a cohort of bright and diverse peers from throughout the state.
Not only does ACCESS support high achieving, academically-oriented, college-bound students, it offers remedial courses in reading comprehension, math, science and social studies, as well as electives in career and technical studies.
Advance to College
Alabama, like many states, is focused on providing more advanced placement courses to more students. Many educators see AP courses as vital indicators of the quality of education that students receive. Not only do they give college-bound students a leg-up on their higher education experience, allowing them to earn college credits for a nominal fee, they are considered great preparation for success in college. Furthermore, the presence of an AP program in a school is seen by many as enriching the general learning environment, something that benefits the school far beyond the limits of the courses themselves.
Advanced placement programs can be expensive to develop and maintain for a number of reasons that include staffing and professional development. The Alabama State Department of Education's e-newsletter, Alabama Education News, stated in May 2007: "Although the number of students taking AP courses in Alabama is increasing, a disproportion exists between the volume of students who take AP courses in more affluent school systems and those in rural and inner-city systems." In fact, while statewide Alabama has 168 high schools in 94 school systems that offer AP courses, more than 200 Alabama high schools do not offer any AP courses at all. The state understands that of the many ways it might plan to address this issue, one that's likely to produce far-reaching results in a short amount of time is its ACCESS program.
Just Getting Started
As inspiring as the new reality for students established by participation in ACCESS is, it is likely that we are merely seeing the prow of a vessel that Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and the Alabama State Department of Education are building. Even as the first few cohorts of students ride ACCESS to 21st century competence, the bulk of its promise remains to be realized. "I first saw the potential of distance learning when I visited Troy University in Alabama," says Gov. Riley. "Troy teaches students across the globe through distance learning, and it made sense that we could apply the same technology in our high schools. We brought together representatives from all aspects of education and asked them to design a program that would provide students across Alabama the opportunity to take a full college-prep curriculum, advanced placement courses, foreign languages and electives. We launched our 24 pilot sites in January 2006, and the expansion continues at a rapid pace."
ACCESS was officially launched in 2004 with funding starting in the fall of 2005, and with the success of the pilot programs the plan is to establish 21st century classrooms in every Alabama high school. "Our goal is to put an ACCESS Distance Learning lab in every high school by 2010," says Gov. Riley. "We are well on our way, and with the passage of this year's budget, we will be in nearly half of all Alabama high schools in just three years." Plenty of students are taking advantage of the opportunities ACCESS has to offer. "During the current fiscal year, 10,000 students will take courses through ACCESS," adds Gov. Riley. "Next year, nearly 20,000 will have that opportunity, and we will add 100 new high schools. We are extremely proud of our progress."
In addition to the expanded body of class offerings and professional development tools, the plan includes the development of a learning objects repository ? a collection of text, HTML files, digital videos and more ? and an overall commitment to strengthening the state's high schools through distance learning. In other words, ACCESS is not seen as an add-on or a technology initiative, but a mission-critical strategy to develop and improve the state's core education program.
One exceptional aim of the program is its stated intention to "Expand the number of students served to reach the goal of giving every high school student (with priority given to schools and students with the greatest need) the opportunity to take at least one distance learning course during high school." This objective is quite visionary as it reflects an understanding that when it comes to using technology in the delivery of educational experiences, the students' interaction with the technology is as much part of the learning experience as is the traditional accredited curriculum being covered.
Learning Happens on Both Ends
An area of concern that all states face is the challenge of attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers, particularly in rural districts. The introduction of online courses taught electronically by teachers, or e-teachers, is a way to combat the shortage. Hiring and training e-teachers as well as providing support for facilitators and schools are essential components that Alabama has addressed by establishing three support centers, said Melinda Maddox, director of technology initiatives for the Alabama Department of Education. These support centers are essential to the success of the ACCESS program.
Another outcome from the ACCESS program has been the changes seen in the teachers on-site. The technology coordinators at the ACCESS schools have noticed that after teachers were trained to instruct students remotely through technology, they became more apt to use technology in their day-to-day lessons in the classroom, according to Maddox.
In a world where virtual high schools are becoming common, success stories with this much impact and significance are rare. The Alabama example is not just one of a promise made, but of a promise kept. The disparity of access to high quality education is a defining issue that has persisted and frustrated countless individuals and kept our society from developing its greatest asset, human capital. Alabama has done the hard work of developing a relevant, appropriate program to address this need, and has built the infrastructure and done the outreach needed to make it work. "Without a statewide network, implementation would have been much more complicated and some students would still be waiting to take distance learning classes," says Oliver. "Strong infrastructure means strong delivery and a guarantee to the student that they will get the best quality of service possible. This guarantee has a direct impact and long-term benefit to the school district, but most importantly, to the student. Reaching down into Alabama's most rural and economically challenged areas and providing the same opportunities for the students there, in terms of connectivity and access, truly does enable ASA to play a significant role in closing the digital divide."
Seeing the great potential of distance learning, Alabama has taken aim and hit the bull's eye with ACCESS. "This is an exciting time to be in education and the field of educational technology," says Maddox. "In just two short years, I have watched the Alabama's ACCESS Distance Learning program grow from Gov. Riley's vision [of providing] every high school student in Alabama with the opportunity to take a wide range of courses to a detailed implementation plan. We're now beginning to see the results in high schools throughout the state. The most rewarding aspect is receiving messages from students, parents, teachers, principals and superintendents about how exposure to knowledge and ideas through the available technology is changing their futures."
ACCESS does more than level the playing field for students in Alabama. It establishes a valuable model on which school systems everywhere can do the same. A tremendous number of stakeholders were involved in creating such a program. Thus, representatives from all these groups needed to be included in the planning phases, and a consensus had to be reached about very difficult issues to ensure successful buy-in. The strong, continued partnerships between the governor's office, the State Department of Education, the Alabama Supercomputer Authority, Alabama Public Television, higher education institutions and school districts who continue to oversee, plan and improve the program is key to the success of the initiative. "ACCESS is revolutionizing the way we teach our students," explains Gov. Riley. "We are especially excited about the blended model of both video conferencing and Web-based courses that the program employs. We can tailor the program to the individual needs of the students. That is what sets Alabama apart."
ACCESS can show the world that metropolitan areas are not the only places that embrace technology. Students coming from all locales need to have adequate technology training and the ability to learn at their maximum potential. Maybe now the rest of the nation can spread the word about the not-so-secret success in the south.