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My view: Change online education in Utah

By Tami Pyfer

Published: Friday, Sept. 23 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Christine Heim sits by her computer in her home on Hill Airforce Base. Heim has taken several online high school courses so she could graduate early. Clearfield, Wednesday, August 15, 2001.

Johanna Workman

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The new school year is in full swing, and with students across the state back in school, many parents have found themselves questioning the recent changes to the state's online education system. While some of these changes are promising, others are troubling, as they may serve to limit, not expand, student and parent choice in public education.

Online education is not new to Utah schools. For more than 15 years, high school students across the state have been able to access countless online course offerings, tailoring their public education to meet their individual needs.

Although online courses can be used for "credit recovery" by students who have failed a course or who fall behind because of illness, long periods of absence or other problems, the more common scenario is a student taking online courses to fulfill core requirements, freeing their school day for electives such as music, debate, student government, AP classes, etc. Given the thousands of students who have participated in online courses annually over the past 15 years, it's unclear what problem SB65 was intended to fix.

The good news is that because of SB65, new online education providers are cropping up in the state, providing an even larger menu of classes for our students to choose from. This is especially beneficial for students in our most rural areas of the state whose schools simply don't have the resources to provide this variety of course offerings.

The bad news is that because of stipulations in SB65, the opportunity to supplement or enhance a student's high school education with additional coursework may actually be more limited. Students who take online courses through one of the statewide public education online providers are restricted in the number of online courses they may take. Two online courses are allowed this year, increasing by one course each year until it reaches six per year in 2016.

In addition, students will no longer be able to use online courses taken through the new statewide public education online program network to supplement coursework at their local high school. Rather than taking these classes in addition to their on-campus classes, students will take online classes instead of on-campus classes. In other words, if a student registers for an online geography or biology course, they are barred from taking a class at their high school for a corresponding period each day.

Students can only exceed these limits if they plan on graduating early, or if they find online classes that are outside of the statewide public education online program network. And while there are many options that still exist outside of this network, one of the largest providers among them, the Utah Electronic High School, is slated to lose its state funding next year.

In addition to these limitations, SB65 now requires money to be taken from a student's local high school and sent to the network's online course provider — a move that could be especially damaging to charter schools.

I appreciate the Legislature's desire to join the Utah State Board of Education in embracing online education, which Utah students have participated in for many years and which is just one of the student-centered learning options the board is implementing to fulfill its vision and mission for Utah students. Perhaps parents can urge the Legislature to take another look at the restrictive nature of this new law and make those changes that will again provide real choice for Utah students.

Tami Pyfer represents District 1 on the Utah State Board of Education. She is a clinical instructor in Utah State University's Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation and an educational consultant who trains faculty in the use of free, online instructional materials.

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