Big changes in online education could mean better opportunities for Alaska’s students, especially those in rural areas. That’s the idea behind a new partnership between the University of Alaska Southeast and the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. The state announced Wednesday that the partnership will oversee Alaska’s Learning Network, a consortium of 54 school districts that works to provide online coursework for high school students across the state.
The two entities want to focus more energy on designing Alaska-themed online courses for high school students, creating continuity in education and ensuring students are prepared for college or a career after high school.
An Arizona-based company that develops online coursework for high school students provides many of the network’s courses. Customizing courses to meet the needs and interests of Alaska’s students will play a major role in the network’s expansion, said Deborah Lo, dean of the College of Education at UAS.
“If you’re doing environmental science, there are lot of national and global issues, but there are also a lot of very important Alaska issues,” Lo said. “There’s no way for a textbook company in the Lower 48 to make that information relevant. It takes a talented teacher to make that information relevant and we have a lot of talented teachers in this state.”
Those courses will also be designed to make certain that students are prepared for coursework in the University of Alaska system. Some courses will also count for college credit.
“It’s a way to create a hand-in-glove situation so that students know they’re on the way to meeting guidelines for college,” Lo said.
The partnership is also expected to help more students meet the eligibility requirements for the Alaska Performance Scholarship, said Kelly Sorensen, an education technology coordinator with the Department of Education and Early Development. The scholarship program — which requires students to complete three to four years of coursework in core subjects — has received criticism because rural students often don’t have access to the same classes as students in larger schools.
“It’s an equalizer,” Sorensen said. “Equity is something that we think and talk about a lot in education. But how do we get there? One way to do that is having a course that’s available statewide; you get the same amount of rigor in a small community as you do in a large community. The kid in Wrangell or Point Hope or Anchorage can have the same quality of education.”
Sorensen said offering more courses and support through the network is good for rural students and for teachers.
“We hear about the isolation that teachers feel when they are far from each other,” Sorensen said. “It’s digital, but this is a way to bring them together.”
UAS was chosen as a partner because the education department is expanding to offer an endorsement in online education, Sorensen said. The partnership will also provide professional development and online support for teachers who use the network.
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