Distance Education Project at The University of Montana:
Summary of Concerns and Planned Responses
Since Governor Martz’s announcement at the November 21, 2003 meeting of the Board of Regents that $250,000 would “be directed towards building upon a distance-learning program that exists at the University of Montana” and that the money was to be used to develop a program for K-12 students that would provide, “instruction where it is most needed for rural and isolated students” there have been numerous questions and issues raised about the project and its implementation.
This report summarizes some of the concerns that were raised at the December 4, 2003 meeting called by Senator Rick Laible at the Capitol and describes how these issues will be addressed prior to and during the implementation of the project.
Determining the Curriculum
A significant concern has been raised about how the curriculum will be shaped. There appear to be multiple aspects to this concern. First, there is the issue that the curriculum cannot be determined by the university. The constitutional authority for K-12 curriculum is the Board of Public Education and the individual school districts. Second is a concern that there needs to be oversight to assure that the curriculum meets Montana K-12 standards. Third, there are concerns about how the course offerings will be determined both in terms of criteria and process.
Below under the heading of Program Oversight an Oversight Committee consisting of the P-20 Committee of the Board of Public Education is to be established to guide the setting of criteria and processes in this project. That oversight will include curriculum review. The courses themselves will be subject to review by participating school administrators (or their designees) and the Office of Public Instruction to ensure that the coursework is consistent with Montana standards.
Determining the Instructors
It is clear that for purposes of maintaining state accreditation, schools using this service must be assured that the teachers are fully licensed in Montana in the area in which they teach. A second unresolved issue is the process to be used in selecting the teachers. This issue is naturally linked to the courses to be offered. There need to be criteria and a process for making those selections.
The Oversight Committee will be responsible for approving the criteria and processes for making those selections. All teachers in this project will be fully licensed in Montana in the area in which they teach online.
Determining the Participants
A concern has been raised about how participants should be selected for this project. The participants are the public school districts that approve participation of their students in coursework that is offered through this project. That is, students who participate in the classes must have the approval of the local district if they are to receive course credit. Again, procedures and criteria need to be developed for the selection of participating public school districts and also for selection of students from those districts.
The Oversight Committee will be responsible for approving the criteria and processes for making those selections.
It has been suggested that projects of this sort typically involve some kinds of partnership or collaborative agreements with schools.
Since school districts must approve participation of their students for credit granting purposes those school districts will de facto become partners in the project. The nature of the partnerships will be delineated in the proposal (see below) and will, of necessity, include a role in curriculum review.
A question was raised as to how the project would be assessed given that there was no budget line for assessment. One possibility suggested was that the project’s success would be determined by how many students completed the courses.
A more complete answer to this question will developed once greater detail about the types of courses to be offered is determined. The oversight committee will be responsible for approving an evaluation plan.
A question was raised about the need for budgeting funds for connectivity at a few schools if the coursework is to be offered to a large number of schools where that connectivity may not be available (thus only a few school would benefit). It was argued that the schools with the greatest need for this program will likely be using relatively slow connections and the program should be designed to accommodate those high need schools rather than try to improve a very small number of school connections.
The project proposal including the budget will address these issues and will be approved by the oversight committee prior to funding any connectivity agreements.
At the meeting on December 4, 2003, it was indicated that the program would employ 13 teachers and serve at least 250 students. There was no estimate of how many schools would be participating. Likewise it was unclear what kinds of courses (i.e. remedial, advanced, unusual, typical) or how many would be offered.
A needs assessment will be carried out by several groups including the Montana Rural Education Association, Montana Small Schools Alliance, School Administrators of Montana, Montana Education Association/ Montana Federation of Teachers, Montana School Boards Association, Board of Public Education and the Office of Public Instruction so they can identify the most critical needs that should be addressed by this project. The oversight committee will be responsible for approving the course offerings.
The proposed program is to be administered through The University of Montana – Missoula because the funding follows the project director. Senator Laible has identified as Dr. John Lundt in the UM-M Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling as project director. One of the goals of the December 4, 2003 meeting was “To gain an understanding of the parameters within which the program must operate (e.g. accreditation standards, university operating procedures).” Commissioner Stearns (OCHE) explained that she viewed this funding as if it were a “grant” or “earmark” to UM-M and that her office would respond to the funding as such. The administrative responsibility for the project falls upon UM-M as it would for any grant to the institution. What makes this project unique is that the funds have been granted without an approved proposal including goals, a scope of work, activities, timeline, budget and budget detail and without the usual pre-submission approvals that normally accompany the process of obtaining external funds. Thus, it is unclear from the information provided so far, what university resources will be required and how (and from where) they will be provided. It is also unclear where this project resides within the university.
A proposal with the following elements: project description (including goals, activities, administrative structure, and assessment); project timeline; budget (including personnel and responsibilities) and a budget detail that explains the expenditures. The proposal will be reviewed by the appropriate UM-M officials for their approval like any other grant proposal. Furthermore, UM-M administration will designate the administrative home for this project. Various stakeholders mentioned elsewhere and the E-Learning Committee of the Board of Public Education will review and provide input into the development of the proposal. The proposal will be approved by the Oversight Committee prior to project implementation.
Several educational leaders have suggested that there be some kind of advisory/oversight committee to provide guidance to the project.
An Oversight Committee consisting of the P-20 Committee of the Board of Education will provide administrative oversight and approvals for this project. The E-learning Committee of the Board of Public Education and other key stakeholders will participate in the development and review of the program proposal prior to its submission.
A budget draft was provided at the meeting on December 4, 2003. The budget has raised a number of questions concerning the project and what the project would be funding.
A complete budget with budget detail will be prepared and approved by the Oversight Committee and UM-M administration prior to initiation of the project.
Elements of Implementation
Key elements for the implementation of this project are:
1. Establishment of the Oversight Committee consisting of the P-20 Committee of the Board of Education.
2. Development of a full project proposal with input and review from representatives of the various stakeholders (including members of the E-learning Committee of the Board of Public Education) described above and approval by the Oversight Committee and UM-M administration.
3. Conducting a thorough needs assessment with the appropriate partners to identify the kinds of courses to be offered in this project.
4. Establishing collaborative partnerships with the participating public school districts.