Brown’s budget pushes frontier of online learning

by Tom Chorneau, SI&A Cabinet Report

As Gov. Jerry Brown joined an effort Tuesday aimed at getting California universities to offer more courses online and at lower costs, his administration released new details of a proposal intended to expand online learning opportunities at K-12 schools.

Outlined in his state budget plan but not yet framed in legislative language, the governor’s K-12 plan calls for a thorough rewrite of state rules surrounding independent study so that districts can offer online courses with fewer restrictions and receive standard state funding support tied to student attendance.

The catch is that the student must prove proficiency before the state would approve the ADA money.

Despite California’s status as one of the world’s great incubators of digital innovation, development of online learning programs within the public school system has consistently been hampered by the state’s primary funding mechanism based on students being in a classroom led by a teacher.

The Legislature achieved something of a breakthrough last fall with approval of a bill that will allow districts and county offices of education, beginning with the 2014-15 school year, to claim for funding purposes the attendance of students enrolled in online courses as long as a teacher is also simultaneously present.

Also complicating the arena is the fact that most online courses are currently funded as independent study, which creates a big financial disincentive to schools because of an array of rules and requirements.

The governor’s latest plan would be to allow asynchronous online instruction ‘ meaning the student and teacher would not have to be sharing the same time element.

Proponents of online learning say the idea could be a big step forward as interest continues to grow in ‘self-directed’ programs. Initial results from a statewide survey conducted last year found that courses taken entirely online either at school or at home were the most common form of online learning in California.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the governor’s Department of Finance, noted that final details of the proposal are still being worked out ‘ but the objective is to streamline independent study and promote online learning.

As currently proposed, the new coursework would continue to be considered independent study ‘ in which a teacher, a student and parents enter into a contract where specific learning objectives would be spelled out.

The new program would eliminate all the current rules governing independent study, including caps on the number of students one teacher can oversee.

At the conclusion of the learning period, the teacher would be tasked with deciding if the student had achieved the learning objectives. If the objectives have been met, the district would be allowed to claim ADA for the student; if not, the funding would not be forthcoming.

The concept, Palmer said, was for the program to be focused on outcome measures, not on meeting compliance rules.

The proposal comes forward as Brown pushes for more online learning opportunities at the state’s colleges and universities.

The governor attended an event in San Jose where officials from the California State University announced a new partnership with an online education company to offer basic skills courses in the coming semester at a flat rate of $150 per class.

The firm is Udacity, co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University professor who won acclaim a year ago by offering a free, online artificial-intelligence course that attracted 160,000 students from 190 nations.

Brown said online learning is not about isolating the student from the teacher.

‘The idea is the human relationship ‘ there’s not a contradiction,’ he said during the San Jose event. ‘We’re about inquiry, we are about knowledge and we are about reflection in wisdom ‘ technology helps that. In fact, technology is the result of that kind of inquiry.’