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Tech task force ponders contracts for online classes, hears tech presentations

Now that Idaho has approved a requirement that high school students take at least two credits online, officials are working on plans for a statewide contract expected to include a list of providers for districts to choose from when selecting virtual courses, the Associated Press reports. Idaho will also phase in mobile computers, such as a laptops or iPads, for every high school teacher and student while making online courses a graduation requirement under sweeping new education changes backed by public schools chief Tom Luna and the governor.

A task force aimed at helping implement Luna's plan to increase technology in the classroom met today at the state Capitol. Luna told the AP the goal is to provide schools with a list of online course providers approved and contracted by the state to offer classes to Idaho students. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner, including concerns about how school district funding will be impacted by the new online class requirement.

During the task force's lunch break today at the J.R. Williams Building across from the Capitol, members heard presentations from Discover Technology, Lorna Finman's Rathdrum-based non-profit organization that promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in schools. Finman brought along her “STAR Discovery Bus,” a mobile lab for teaching kids about science and math. “It can go anywhere,” Finman said. She said she has another, larger bus in the works, since this one can only accommodate about 15 students at a time. “We're not asking for any money from the schools,” she said. “This is all privately funded by business people.”

As task force members toured the bus, which includes touchpads and work stations for kids, Dennis Kimberling told them, “The hands-on is the hook for the kids in the science and technology.” Nearby, a full-sized robot named “DiscoTech” greeted people and carried on conversations; the remote controlled robot was built by kids in Discovery Technology's robotics programs, Finman said. Discovery Technology also holds summer robotics camps for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade and sponsors after-school robotics programs.


Idaho works to carry out online class requirement
By JESSIE L. BONNER, Associated Press


BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Now that Idaho has approved a requirement that high school students take at least two credits online, officials are working on plans for a statewide contract expected to include a list of providers for districts to choose from when selecting virtual courses.

Idaho will also phase in mobile computers, such as a laptops or iPads, for every high school teacher and student while making online courses a graduation requirement under sweeping new education changes backed by public schools chief Tom Luna and the governor.

A task force aimed at helping implement Luna's plan to increase technology in the classroom met Monday at the Idaho Capitol in Boise. The goal is to provide schools with a list of online course providers approved and contracted by the state to offer classes to Idaho students, Luna said.

“We want to set up a bank of online providers that have negotiated a statewide contract price. That's going to drive the cost down,” Luna said Monday during an interview with The Associated Press. “And then, school districts will be able to create a catalog of online courses for their students to choose from.”

But under the education changes, high school students will also be allowed to enroll in any state-approved online class starting next fall — with or without permission from their school district. The company that provides that online course will then be entitled to two-thirds of the state funding sent to the school district for that student for that class period.

At least one lawmaker on Luna's task force has expressed concerns that companies picked to provide the online courses could, in some cases, tap more state funding from some of Idaho's smaller school districts. That's because they receive more money per student under Idaho's funding formula.

For example, an online course company could collect amounts that range from $210 per semester for offering a class to a student in Boise, the state's largest population center, to $733 for a student in Midvale, a rural town of less than 200 residents, according to state estimates.

This new fractional funding formula would apply only in cases where the student, or his or her parent, has selected a course outside of those offered by the companies that have been contracted by the state for a set amount. State Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, serves on Luna's task force and has questioned the apparent disparities under the funding formula and whether they could make it more appealing for an online company to market their courses to parents in rural areas of the state.

“I'm still wondering how all this will work, given the parental choice,” Jaquet said.

But Luna counters that it's very unlikely that a parent or student will venture outside the list of courses provided by their school district. He is also skeptical that online curriculum companies will “cherry pick” students when Idaho is offering a statewide contract.

The task force is expected to send out a request for information from potential online course providers later this week, said Jason Hancock, who serves as Luna's deputy chief of staff. A request for proposals from online vendors would go out to bid early next year.

“We're probably looking at some time in March, maybe April,” Hancock said.

Proponents of online education said the virtual classes will help the state save money and better prepare students for college. But critics said they'll replace teachers with computers and shift state taxpayer money to the out-of-state companies that will be tapped to provide the online curriculum and laptops.

The online class requirement was approved last week by the state Board of Education and will go before Idaho lawmakers for review in the 2012 session, which starts in January. It will apply to students entering the 9th grade in fall 2012.


Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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