By Mike Klein
When he recorded a Georgia Public Broadcasting studio audience program this week Governor Nathan Deal needed just two sentences to precisely capsulize why nearly everything that we think we know about learning and education should be reconsidered and re-engineered.
“We still live in an era in which everybody seems to think that unless your child has a college degree they are not successful. We know that is not true,” Deal told a studio audience that watched the taping of Ignite, a GPB education web program.
His conversation with host Anne Ostholthoff focused on college and career initiatives, a priority under Deal whose administration has recognized states left behind in education technology will be left behind in the larger economy. Connected learning can establish a virtual learning matrix between pupils, instructors and others in any dimension, locally, regionally and globally.
That connection is what Camilla, Georgia innovator Vicki Davis calls “Flat Learning” – modeled after author Thomas Friedman’s popular concept that the world is flat. High tech that flattened the world enables us to connect learning dots in ways not earlier possible. “It means you can collaborate with anybody, anywhere at any time,” said Davis who blogs as Cool Cat Teacher.
With an eye on connected learning, there is news about other projects. Starting this year Georgia high school students will have expanded access to the Microsoft IT Academy. The Academy is a great resource for students who are moving into careers or higher education.
On another front, state education officials are not quite ready to launch an online learning clearinghouse that lawmakers created this year. The concept of digital courses being bundled into a state-administered catalogue available to everyone also needs a substantial awareness campaign; even informed school insiders don’t know much about it.
Let’s focus first on the Microsoft IT Academy. A formal announcement is expected next month but a recent letter from the state Department of Education told public school systems Georgia’s partnership with Microsoft will become available to all 464 high schools statewide. Previously the program was available in about five dozen high schools.
Microsoft IT Academy is an extensive curriculum that enables students to become proficient in all things Microsoft. Successful students earn Microsoft certifications. Microsoft’s website says IT Academy courses are taught in 160 countries. Resources will include courses, licenses for classroom or student home use, access to Microsoft certification exams and much more.
The state technical college system and Microsoft IT Academy are partners since June 2008. For a mere pittance – a $34,000 per year contract – IT Academy courses are available without limit to students on all 25 technical college system campuses. Some 13,600 students participated during the most recent school year for which data is available. Such a deal: less than $3 per student! University system schools also use Microsoft IT Academy.
About 200 students per year participate in the Microsoft IT Academy at Ogeechee Technical College in Statesboro where computer sciences instructor Terry Hand says, “We are working hard to produce quality IT graduates that will be productive employees.” Hand is the technical college system’s lead coordinator with Microsoft and he serves on its national advisory committee. Hand estimated about 1,000 Ogeechee students have participated since the program was begun in 2009.
Less certain is when state education officials will launch Georgia Virtual School’s catalogue of digital learning courses from public school systems and charter schools. Literally hundreds of elementary, middle school and high school courses could be co-mingled from public systems like Gwinnett, Cobb and Forsyth counties and the state’s growing number of online schools.
Governor Deal signed the “Online Clearinghouse Act” on May 1. State education officials are determining how to screen a list of courses from across the state that might qualify. “However, none of these plans are final,” said Bob Swiggum, chief information officer for DOE technology.
Legislation (House Bill 175) provides that public school systems or charter schools “shall apply” to the state Department of Education to include their courses. But when we checked, the project seems to have a very low profile and to this point, some even question why they would.
“On first blush I’m not sure what we would have to gain from it,” said Gale Hey, associate superintendent of teaching and learning for the Gwinnett County Public Schools. “I can see where the smaller districts would really benefit from this opportunity.”
Gwinnett has a rich online catalogue and has offered supplemental online learning options since 1999. Today some 5,000 students expand past traditional classroom work with selections from 160 high school classes, 28 credit recovery classes and 35 middle school classes.
Gwinnett started an entirely online high school for district resident students last year, a middle school opened this year and an online elementary school is scheduled to open in fall 2013. Gwinnett’s considerable resources could be valuable to small districts that do not have the capability to produce online courses or the finances to purchase them.
Georgia Cyber Academy is the state’s largest online learning school with 12,000 pupils. GCA head of school Matt Arkin said including its courses in a state library is a low current priority. “Our focus right now is some of the larger issues around charter schools before we could look into that as an option,” said Arkin. “One day I see it being a good thing.” GCA enrollment increased by 2,000 students this fall and it has 1,000 more on waiting lists for K-11 courses.
Georgia online learning remains a series of tentative steps forward. Senate Bill 289 that also passed the Legislature this year instructs state education officials to maximize the number of high school students who complete one online learning course before spring 2019 graduation. That extremely modest goal – one course — will apply to the fall 2014 incoming freshman class.
Online clearinghouse legislation established no timetables; perhaps that is part of its challenge. Senate Bill 289 stipulated several deadlines. The first is December 1 this year when education officials must tell the Governor’s Office and General Assembly how they will help local school systems acquire digital learning at reasonable prices.
Connected learning technology will no doubt have a large footprint going forward. Governor Deal offered a salient thought during this week’s education show taping at GPB. Quoting a friend, the Governor said, “If you can find what a child is passionate about, build on that. That child will be successful and the educational process will have achieved its goal.”