Inspire Connections Academy

Carolina McArthur and her daughter Lilia, 7, work together on identifying and grouping various rocks as part of an online lesson plan Friday inside the family’s Nampa home. As a student enrolled in online classes through Inspire Connections Academy, Lilia’s parents believe she is able to receive individualized learning while limiting outside distractions.

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© 2011 Idaho Press-Tribune

TREASURE VALLEY — Beginning with next fall’s freshman class, Idaho high school students would be required to complete at least two online courses to graduate, under a rule passed by the State Board of Education that will be sent to the Legislature in January.

The online course requirement — initiated by Superintendent Tom Luna’s Students Come First initiative — has raised concerns among many teachers and parents.

Proponents believe that online classes will prepare students for digital environments in their college and work careers, while also allowing students to choose from a broader range of classes and potentially helping the state save money.

But others argue that online classes should only be offered as electives. They worry online classes don’t provide the same academic rigor and interaction as traditional classes, and say funding online classes could result in cuts to district salaries and programs.

As school districts — including Nampa, Caldwell and Vallivue — prepare to implement online education into their curricula next fall, some Idaho districts already have extensive experience with online education.

The state’s digital charter schools offer all their classes over the internet for students to access over a home computer. And the state’s rural districts offer students a variety of online classes through the state-funded Digital Learning Academy.

What can parents and school administrators learn from the experiences of these schools?


Supervision key to online class success

© 2011 Idaho Press-Tribune

NOTUS — On any given school day, students at the Pirate Academy — Notus High School’s digital learning classroom — sit at computers, studying subjects that aren’t offered by the school’s teaching staff.

Maribel Carrillo, a junior, is taking three online classes this semester — advanced placement psychology, medical terminology and sociology — that she hopes will help her study medicine in college.

“I want to be a doctor, and this really gives me an opportunity to start learning what I need ahead of time,” Carrillo said.

The Pirate Academy’s classes are administered through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, which connects students with teachers from around the state through its online platform.

The Legislature established the IDLA in 2002 to expand course offerings to rural schools, and enrollment in the online program has grown by about 50 percent every year, reaching about 9,800 this semester, according to Nick Smith, IDLA’s director of education programs.

Smith, a former principal in the Bliss School District, said rural schools such as Notus have been at the forefront of online education in Idaho, and they offer lessons as districts around the state prepare to meet new graduation rules requiring students to complete two online classes to graduate.

After all, IDLA is one of the course providers that districts will turn to as they require online classes.


Adult supervision in a structured classroom environment has been a key element in the success of students taking online classes, Smith said.

At Notus, students enroll in their online classes as part of their regular class schedule. Each day, they log into a computer during their scheduled class period and work on their lessons as Patricia Shelden, the site coordinator for the Pirate Academy, oversees them.

Shelden helps the students deal with technological issues that arise using the IDLA platform, along with other more traditional teacher duties such as classroom management, answering vocabulary questions and ensuring that students are keeping up with their work.

“I think it’s key to have a scheduled time for students to work and have a person to help the students and keep the students focused,” Shelden said.


Carrillo, the Notus junior, said that even with adult supervision and regularly scheduled classes, some students still have difficulty adjusting to online classes. Unlike traditional classes, online classes don’t offer the constant teacher interaction that helps some students stay on track. When Carrillo has questions about her lesson, she often won’t hear back from the teacher for an entire day, she said.

“You have to learn the responsibility and motivate yourself to be on task. In the end you feel really good because you feel that you accomplished something on your own,” she said. “I’ve seen some students have problems with it. That’s why IDLA isn’t for everyone. It’s for students who want to take the next step in their education.”


Shelden, the Notus site coordinator, said one of the biggest challenges when the Pirate Academy opened was dealing with technological glitches. But IDLA’s server and lesson delivery system has improved each year, she said, and she has learned to solve technology problems.

Shelden said she meets regularly with site coordinators from other rural schools from Wilder, Parma and Horseshoe Bend, along with IDLA representatives, and they discuss how to improve the online courses.

“Those technical challenges are limited now, and we can overcome them through a telephone conversation or an online chat and they are fixed,” she said.

Smith agreed that the state has invested in training and technology to improve the delivery of its online courses, and now most of the early glitches have been remedied.

Online digital schools work to improve interaction

TREASURE VALLEY — Since the state’s first online charter school, the Idaho Virtual Academy, was established in 2002, online education has evolved to better meet the needs of students. In particular, school administrators say they’ve made great strides in improving the interactivity of classes, giving students opportunities to work together with teachers and other students — both online and offline.


Online education can broadly be broken into two types of courses:

  • Asynchronous: Students log on by their own schedule and work at their own pace without  immediate communication with a teacher or other students; this allows a lot of flexibility for each student.
  • Synchronous: Students log on at the same time as the teacher and other students; this allows back-and-forth with the teacher, as well as collaboration with other students.

Desi Laughlin, head of the Idaho Virtual Academy, said online schools are increasingly combining both styles of learning in each course.

For example, a math class might be offered several times throughout the week, allowing a student to follow along and ask questions to the teacher and fellow students. Or the student might watch a recording of the lesson, replaying difficult sections and working at his own time and pace. Teachers also offer office hours during which students can log on and ask the teacher questions about the lesson or the homework.


Another trend in online education is a greater emphasis on providing opportunities for offline interaction.

Monte Pittman, executive director for iSucceed, said his school encourages a sense of community by sponsoring pizza parties and weekly study sessions around the state. When the students can interact  socially and academically outside of the online classroom, they perform better in their online classes, he said. Online schools have also implemented traditional ceremonies such as prom and graduation and extra-curricular activities, such as yearbook and chess clubs.

“We are determined to find better ways to open communication and involve our students. Every year we get more sophisticated in that,” he said.

Test scores

One of the challenges faced by online schools — especially in the junior and high school grades — is that they tend to attract students who weren’t successful in traditional schools. As such, their test scores might fall below the state average.

Laughlin of the Idaho Virtual Academy said 68 percent of her school’s students come from families living in poverty, and about 80 percent of students are below or barely proficient in their test scores when they first enroll.

“Typically parents don’t leave a school if they’re happy with the way things are going,” she said.

The school tries to give the students who are struggling extra support, and so far has been successful at raising the test scores for most students, Laughlin said.

Pittman said that while his student test scores might be below the state average, it’s also important to note that they face unique challenges. Many are drop-outs who decided to return to school, teenaged mothers, or the caregivers for old or disabled relatives.

Student-teacher ratios

While administrators of these schools acknowledged that their student-to-teacher ratios are significantly higher than a traditional schools, they argue that the online teaching environment allows teachers to reach students more efficiently.

Teachers don’t have to deal with classroom management and discipline issues, and many of the mundane tasks of grading weekly quizzes are automated by the computer.

“Although the school incurs considerable expense for the use of this technology and personalized curriculum, it does permit a teacher to effectively serve more students,” said Gerald Chouinard, principal of INSPIRE.

Q & A with Tom Luna and Penni Cyr

State Superintendent Tom Luna

Why is the state mandating online classes?

The online credit requirement is critical to ensure Idaho students are prepared to go on to postsecondary education and the workforce. The fact is we do not just want our students to be successful while in school, but outside of school once they graduate. To be successful, they must have the skills and abilities to succeed in an online environment. Why?  More and more colleges and universities are offering their courses online. The College of Western Idaho, for example, has reported 20 percent of all courses will be taken online by 2013. The work force also is dependent on online training. It will only increase in the years to come. Our students have to be prepared.

What are the challenges of implementing online classes state-wide?

The technology has been the biggest challenge in the past.  Many of Idaho’s high schools and most of our rural and remote school districts used to lack the broadband connectivity necessary to give students access to high-level courses that they needed and wanted.  Over the last three years, the state has invested $40 million in the Idaho Education Network, which has now connected every Idaho high school and college and university through a high-speed, broadband intranet system.  Now, no matter where a student attends school in Idaho, they have access to the highest quality instruction and instructors.  We are closing the digital divide in Idaho. 

In your travels around the state, you’ve probably heard many concerns. What are the top concerns that people are raising? How do you respond to them?

The biggest concern has been based on an assumption that an online class is limited to a student sitting in front of a computer with little or no interaction with an Idaho-certified teacher.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Online classes today are live and interactive.  Students and teachers see each other, hear each other, and interact in real time.  Every online course meets our state standards and is taught by an Idaho-certified teacher. The only difference is that the teacher and student might be hundreds of miles apart.  Once parents, students and teachers learn this and realize how much distance learning is already happening in our schools, they become far more receptive to the two-credit requirement.

Idaho Education President Penni Cyr

What concerns does the Idaho Education Association have about online education?

Educators have no problem with students taking courses online, but when online courses are mandated, parents no longer have control over how their children learn. We also want to make sure that the online course teachers are certified and live in Idaho, and that students have access to them. We’ve heard instances where students ask questions and don’t get a response for 24 hours or more.

We also have many questions about how these classes are funded. Is the fractional ADA (average daily attendance) system fair to school districts throughout the state? Will out-of-state vendors undercut Idaho providers? We hear from administrators that the confusion over how online classes will be funded will create more problems than it will solve.

How should online education be implemented in Idaho schools?

We think online classes are fine. The IDLA has quite a selection of courses, and these are useful especially for students in rural districts. The rigor needs to be there, ensuring the same level of education as in a face-to-face environment. We don’t want online courses that are “easy.” We need to make sure that they meet state requirements and that they are taught by a certified teacher in the state of Idaho. We also believe that core classes required for graduation are best experienced in a face-to-face or blended setting where students and teachers have a strong rapport and immediate access to one another.

How is the IEA preparing for the November 2012 referendum on the online course requirements?

We are listening to Idahoans across the state and hope to get a lot of information as we proceed. We are pleased that the State Board chose to require only two online credits, but we know that most Idahoans do not like how the online course mandates limit parental choice and local district control.

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