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Coming soon to Howard County: a digital school system

Mt. Hebron High School students, from left, Brandon Beers, Steve Kang and Taylor Crittendon work together to analyze the stock market and create portfolios for their Honors Accounting class — just a taste of the online possibilities planned in the school system. (Photo by Noah Scialom / February 28, 2012)

By Sara Toth,

When the county school board approved a 2013 operating budget last week, board members also gave the green light to a comprehensive, system-wide approach to greater digital learning for students.

In its $697 million request, the board designated $500,000 for a new e-learning program that will hail the beginning of a virtual online school.

“We’re in good shape to launch a very robust program,” said Chief Academic Officer Linda Wise.

The program is in its beginning stages, Wise said. But the school system successfully piloted online courses during the 2011 summer school session, and has implemented other forms of digital learning in the past in “small pieces.”

The new program will take those pieces to a new level, Wise said.

“By having a program as the focus of that, we’ll be able to bring into the schools online credits for home and hospitalized students, for make-up credits and to make more opportunities for students to get credits or enhance their work online,” she said.

The new program would move forward under the guidance of a new digital education officer and technical assistant, jobs created by the $500,000, said Julie Wray, coordinator of instructional technology.

Those positions would be filled after the County Council approves the board’s budget, and online courses would be available for some students in the 2012-2013 academic year.

“We’ll start small,” Wray said. “It’s not something that will be rolled out all at once. … But we’re moving forward as we speak with small programs so we can build it from there.”

Wray said the system this summer would again be offering blended online courses — taught both online and in a physical classroom — for students in danger of failing a grade, and would offer classes for interested gifted and talented students as well.

“There’s so many different pieces of it,” Wray said. “We’re looking at an iPad pilot that could be a component of this; we’re looking to bring it hopefully next year to a middle school and one particular grade level, but there haven’t been specific details of that yet.”

Short on specifics

Because the program is in its infancy, specifics are unknown, Wise said. There are many ways to go about integrating technology in a physical classroom and creating a virtual one, she said, and how the system would move forward would be determined once someone is hired to oversee the new program.

For example, the school system may establish a relationship with an accredited online institution to provide classes, rent or lease online classes or create its own classes.

Some of the $500,000 set aside for next year will be used to test and develop programs, purchase content and train teachers, since the online courses would actually be “blended” with in-person classroom components.

When the program is implemented in its entirety — neither Wray nor Wise could say when that will happen — it would be more than just online classes. It could be a unique learning tool for each individual student.

“Ideally, this could be something that could accommodate pre-K through 12th grade,” Wray said. “When this comes to full implementation, we could see pre-K access to online content that would be individualized and tailored to that student.

“It could be fifth-graders accessing resources online, not just because they’re out of school, but as a way of enhancing their learning. … It would be a way to accrue additional credits, to have a personalized learning program for that individual with anywhere, any time access.”

Such individualized, digital learning is the future, Wray said.

“We can’t restrict ourselves to learning only in brick-and-mortar buildings, where we’re learning from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in a schoolhouse,” she said. “It’s about expanding opportunities so these kids can have more chances to learn outside the school building and connect to folks outside of the school in the county, state, country. With the technology and resources we have, we can provide students with what they need to be successful.”

Board member Brian Meshkin said he helped push the drive for digital learning for that very reason.

“Technology is not just a tool,” he said. “It’s game-changing. It allows us to personalize information for the student, personalize exactly what they need to know. You can know what they’re learning and what they don’t understand.”

Meshkin proposed similar initiatives last year, but with no success. This year, the board unanimously approved the program — in part, Meshkin said, because of the success of the smaller digital learning pilots.

The digital school was not included in Superintendent Sydney Cousin’s initial budget proposal. But after a report Jan. 26 on the various pilot programs and staff suggestions to one day create one system-wide plan, board members decided to start the program sooner rather than later.

“We’ve been in such a crunch of trying to constantly downsize the budget,” board Chairwoman Sandra French said. “We should have done this last year; it just wasn’t economically feasible. Even now it’s a leap of faith, but how many more years are we going to wait when everyone recognizes that this is a pressing need?

“We will find a way to make this happen. We need to push forward.”

This article was originally posted at,0,7266230.story

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