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Friday, Jul 25, 2014

Schools readying for online education expansion

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CLEARWATER - A new law aims to offer more online classes to Florida students than ever before, but making sure it works as intended will take lots of time and planning, school officials say.

Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law July 1, allowing more out-of-state digital learning companies to partner with developing Florida online classes and requiring the Department of Education to research the effects. Now, the state has to figure out how to hold online teachers and curricula accountable.

The goal is to improve education for all Florida students, said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, one of the bill's sponsors.

"One of the biggest variables in students' lives is the quality of the teacher at the front of their classroom," Brandes said. "If we can somehow standardize the quality of instruction they're receiving, we can remove one of the variables from their educational success. I don't think we're going to get to that point where every student is learning the same thing, but we should be using technology to help our teachers facilitate that process."

Brandes and state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. sponsored the bill, which they say reflects the evolving world of education. By 2015 - the year the state is supposed to fully implement a new, nationwide set of academic standards called the Common Core - the Florida Department of Education is to conduct a study on "massive open online courses" and come up with a plan for blending them into state schools.

Having more online courses will help students prepare for the online standardized testing that will come with the Common Core, Brandes said. The law also establishes a "rigorous evaluation process" for digital providers, such as cataloging their online courses passage rates.

There are lots of other issues to consider, said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association teachers union.

Teachers have to be accredited, and class sizes have to be monitored. There needs to be transparency with student performance and ways to ensure that the student who signed up for the class is actually completing the work, said Pudlow.

"It's kind of a brave new world we're heading into with online education, and I'm not sure the state of Florida has really done a good job examining all the questions that come to mind to make sure it really is a good system before we throw a lot of money at it and go full scale," Pudlow said.

The law is ambitious and will take lots of planning and man-hours to meet the 2015 deadline, said director of Pinellas County Schools Virtual School Pat Lusher.

"The legislation has been changing, so it's a little early to determine how this will impact us," Lusher said. "We don't know where we would get money from to do this, or even if it's going to cost us anything or where exactly we need to start, so now we're looking for more guidance from the state and they're still figuring it out themselves."

Pinellas Virtual School serves about 300 full-time students and 200 part-time students, though those numbers are rapidly increasing as online college courses and testing becomes more popular, Lusher said. This legislative session, Scott also signed a bill that allows the University of Florida to offer bachelor degrees completely online, and online versions of the ACT college admissions test will be available by spring 2015.

Ultimately, there are benefits to online education, Pudlow said. Students in rural counties with limited course offerings can still take courses they're interested in online. Those with medical conditions who may have trouble getting to class can keep up with their studies. Parents can have more control over their child's education. But Pudlow said he believes many will opt for a traditional classroom.

"Education is way more than simply learning facts," Pudlow said. "We go to school to learn about other people, to interact with different cultures and authority figures, to be involved in class discussions, and I think being physically present in a school is a really important part of all children's development. The whole idea of a kid starting out in kindergarten and going online and getting an education that way strikes me as a little incomplete."

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

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