By Heather Staker and Andrew Trotter
Nearly 32 percent of Alabama public school students were enrolled in rural schools in 2003, often in the state’s most impoverished regions. These small, rural schools faced the challenge of providing enough highly qualified teachers to offer a comprehensive curriculum. In 2003 Alabama administered only 99 Advanced Placement (AP) exams per 1,000 juniors and seniors, which ranked 14th out of the 16 southern states in availability of AP courses to high school students.
Launching ACCESS distance learning
In 2004, Alabama Governor Bob Riley convened a task force of representatives from public and private institutions across Alabama to create the blueprints for the Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, & Students Statewide (ACCESS) Distance Learning Program,* with the mission to equalize education opportunities across the state. After agreeing to a design, the task force assigned the Alabama Department of Education (ALSDE) to launch and operate the initiative. ALSDE’s ACCESS program office moved forward swiftly by building ACCESS across four dimensions:
1) Offering synchronous and asynchronous instruction
The task force directed ALSDE to offer courses through three delivery methods: videoconferencing- based instruction (VCI), which featured synchronous teacher-student communication; Web- based instruction (WBI), or online learning, which often involved asynchronous teacher-student communication; and a blend of these two approaches.
The task force decided to use VCI because it already existed in 20 percent of high schools across the state and the concept felt familiar, as it resembled a normal classroom. The task force also liked its ability to deliver virtual field trips. WBI, on the other hand, offered flexibility with location, time, path, and pace. It also allowed for small enrollments for any given course, whereas VCI required traditional class sizes. After ACCESS became operational, ACCESS administrators began to favor a third option—the blending of VCI with WBI. By the end of 2010, ACCESS required that every ACCESS course include both synchronous and asynchronous instruction.
2) Purchasing and developing content
The ACCESS program office purchased perpetual licenses for 32 courses from Florida Virtual School and 13 from Aventa Learning. It also created 20 of its own courses, as well as five non- credit remediation modules to prepare students for the Alabama High School Graduation Exam.
3) Upgrading equipment and infrastructure
The program office awarded 360 grants, ranging from $50,000 to $85,000, to equip each Alabama public high school with a “21st Century Classroom,” which included videoconference equipment, at least 25 tablet PCs, and other technology. The team also licensed Elluminate, which it later replaced with WebEx, for Internet conferencing
The Alabama Supercomputer Authority worked with ACCESS to extend the high-speed AREN data network to the K–12 system. By the end of 2010 it had delivered broadband connectivity, at a minimum of 20 Mbps, to all 371 high schools and 133 central district offices and had begun to upgrade to 50 Mbps. It also organized a consortium of school districts to apply jointly for E-Rate funding to streamline the application process.
4) Providing central support
ACCESS’s support centers became the locus of training for adults involved with the initiative. By the end of 2010. the centers had recruited and trained a total of 659 WBI and VCI teachers. The support centers also held workshops for superintendents, technology coordinators, counselors, and principals.
The Alabama legislature funded ACCESS as a line item in the state budget. This funding model enhanced the program’s popularity with districts, as it did not compete directly for funding with them. The task force especially wanted impoverished districts, which most needed access to broader education opportunities for their students, to see ACCESS as a net gain, not per- pupil loss, for their budgets. From 2008 to 2011, ACCESS funding stayed relatively flat around the $20 million level. To date, the funding levels have been enough to accommodate students’ demand and not necessitate any wait lists.
By the end of 2010, ACCESS was the third-largest state virtual school in the country, with 29,415 enrollments** in 2010 and 11,746 non-credit enrollments. ACCESS’s enrollment growth rate declined in 2010 relative to that of other state virtual schools, largely because of ACCESS’s focus on deploying technology infrastructure in 2010 rather than on increasing enrollments.
Alabama’s K–12 education system claimed several successes during the span of ACCESS’s existence. The number of AP test takers in Alabama public schools almost doubled from 2004 to 2010;the number of African American AP test takers more than quadrupled; and the number of qualifying exam scores more than doubled. Between 2002 and 2008, Alabama’s high school graduation rate climbed from 62.1 to 69.0 percent, a gain that was 4.3 percentage points above the national average for that time period. Although other factors may have contributed to these improvements, ACCESS was the driving force in bringing advanced coursework and alternative education options to Alabama.
Changes and direction moving forward
Alabama made the “Advanced Academic Endorsement Diploma” the default diploma for the class of 2013. This diploma required the completion of at least 20 hours of an online course or experience. The state also removed the seat-time requirement to allow for credit recovery and credit advancement based on demonstrating competency, not completing a certain number of hours of coursework. This paved the way for more innovative scheduling options for schools. ACCESS piloted two credit-recovery courses in the spring of 2010.
ACCESS intended to focus on its facilitation of blended learning in the years ahead. It especially wanted to find ways to help face-to-face teachers use the learning management system and ACCESS’s digital resources as sustaining technologies in their face-to-face classrooms.
* Although Alabama calls ACCESS a “distance-learning” program, the more accurate description of ACCESS is as both a distance- and online-learning program. Online learning is education in which instruction and content are delivered primarily over the Internet. It is not always a subset of distance learning because the online teacher may not be geographically remote from the student.
** An enrollment is defined as any instance of a student taking a half-credit course; one student, therefore, can be responsible for several enrollments.