CHEYENNE – The appetite of Wyoming students for taking classes from outside of the confines of their physical classroom is growing according to a draft report penned by the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE).
According to the 2011-12 Summary Report of K-12 Distance Education in Wyoming, 2,043 students in Wyoming enrolled in a distance education course last year with 1,213 of those students classified as high schoolers. That is a 34 percent increase from the 2010-11 school year.
The Wyoming Switchboard Network (WSN) is a one-stop-shop of distance education courses and providers that deliver coursework to K-12 students in Wyoming. Currently there are 707 courses available on the WSN from which Wyoming students can select. The program is uniquely Wyoming, in fact 95 percent of courses were delivered by in-state district providers.
"Distance education has always been about offering greater learning opportunities and equity for students," said WDE Distance Education consultant Lachelle Brant.
By the Numbers
According to the 2011-12 Summary Report of K-12 Distance Education in Wyoming, 33 Wyoming districts enrolled students into distance education courses. Niobrara District 1, which had 662 students (32 percent of all distance education kids in Wyoming) enrolled in the Wyoming Virtual Academy in 2011, features the state's largest distance education enrollment. All but nine of those students came from districts outside of Niobrara County. Programs at Big Horn 1 (285 students), and Carbon County 1 (149) also had high numbers of distance education students. Laramie 1 (265) has also seen high usage of distance education.
"It isn't one-size-fits-all," said WDE Distance Education consultant Scott Bullock. "A lot of people think of distance education and they are thinking of a student who never steps into the classroom. That's true—you can have a student who never walks into the classroom. But we cover districts providing one course or supplemental options, or programs that specialize in nothing but supplemental options for kids."
About 64 percent of all students using distance education in Wyoming did so as fulltime distance education students (taking all of their courses at a distance). The rest participated in distance education courses to supplement their traditional coursework.
There are four models of distance education student enrollments—self-contained, partnership, fulltime transfer and out-of-state. Nearly 840 students were enrolled through the partnership model where an instructor employed by another Wyoming school districts, the University of Wyoming, or a community college, delivers the distance education courses. The report went on to say 233 students participated in self-contained distance education, in which a student participates in a distance education program from their own district.
The majority of students (45 percent) who took distance education courses in Wyoming last year were enrolled as virtual transfer students where their resident district withdrew the student from its membership so that they could enroll as a fulltime student in a distance education program provided by another Wyoming district.
"CCSD #1 is expanding distant education learning to reach more and more students in a rural area to meet the demanding educational needs of the students and leadership," said Carbon County Title I Director, Nancy Torstenbo. "Students and leadership are not limited to the confines of distance when it comes to accessing information and higher education."
Getting into Distance Education
The process for a student enrolling into a distance education course is laid out by the state. According to Bullock, a student interested in distance education goes to his/her school's counselor. If the school and counselor are willing to accept the distance education course, a learning coach, teacher or principal at the school sits down with the student and explains the local requirements or expectations.
After the conference, a document called a distance learning plan is drafted by the home district. Bullock said the home school district's responsibilities aren't done at that point.
"It's the student's resident school district that is responsible to monitor the student," he said. "Even if that student is released to a learning lab, or if he/she is released so the student does the program in the evening, the weekends or in a different location."
Bullock said he is seeing school districts around the state beginning to work together through the WSN for electives or courses in the Hathaway Curriculum not offered in their own district. He said he is also seeing districts open their empty seats in the classroom up to other districts, in some cases maintaining instructors' student numbers. Instructors are allowed to teach up to six classes of 25 students either online or as a combination between online and in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged to offer programs, which are available during their regular school hours as part of their normal school day.
"If enrollment is down for a teacher or a school, then put that course online and allow those other seats to be available to other students in the state," Bullock suggested. "We are also seeing, which was the original intent of the switchboard network, that districts are leaning on each other," Bullock said.
Instructors interested in getting a course on the WSN meet with their school's leadership to outline their plan for billing, format and the delivery system for the online course, standards alignments and course content. The course is then sent to the WDE for approval and posted to the WSN website.
While the trends for distance education are rising, they are not without some growing pains. Currently, the state doesn't have a specific state platform for delivery of the courses. Currently, each school offering a course must buy its own platform – something such as Blackboard Collaborate, or others. Brant said the state does have a distance education grant available to help schools pay for their delivery systems and help with other costs associated in developing an online offering.
With the trends of distance learning increasing by more than one-third over the last year, Bullock said he doesn't see distance learning going away. He said school districts are recognizing the need for flexibility in both teaching and learning. He said districts have also phased in technology and are more open to the idea of distance education in Wyoming than in years past.
"It (distance education) is a dominant force in education and I think people really need to take a hard look at how to either play in the game or actually step up to the plate and take their own swing," said Bullock. "There will be a day when brick-and-mortar school and distance learning will be all blended and mashed together."