One Story of What Happens When North Dakotans Are Driven by Their Pioneering Spirit

September 25, 2015


In early 2010 North Dakota Center for Distance Education (NDCDE) was nearly closed. The Center was in bad shape. The state director had resigned under pressure. Fifteen employees had been let go over several years via the Reduction in Force (RIF) process. Total North Dakota student enrollments for the previous year (2009) had amounted to a total of 550 enrollments (ironically, only 10 more than in the Center’s inaugural year of 1935). A select committee commissioned by the governor comprised of the lieutenant governor, Director of ITD, Director of NDCEL, Director of ETC, and Chair of House Education Committee decided to give the Center some more time to redeem itself. Despite its poor performance at the time, the committee concluded that the Center was needed at this time to assist a K-12 education system that was serving “a rural state with vast distances between towns and schools and with radically fluctuating population shifts.”

Had the Center closed in 2010 it would have marked the end to an amazing North Dakota story. A story so rich and widely recognized that it persuaded then governor of New York and presidential hopeful, Nelson Rockefeller, to speak at the Center’s 1960 commencement ceremony. He said in part, “This is not an ordinary high school commencement, nor is this an ordinary graduation class….This is an occasion that tells much of the spirit of the people of North Dakota; this occasion is for me a most inspirational beginning of my visit to North Dakota.”

NDCDE 1935-2009

The North Dakota pioneering spirit that first gave life to the Center came in the form of its founder and first director Theordore Waldemar Thordarson. T.W. Thordarson was born on a homestead near Gardar, ND in 1892 to Icelandic pioneers. From those humble beginnings he went on to graduate from Park River High School, earn a teaching certificate at VCSU (1912), a BS in Agricultural Engineering degree at NDSU (1916), a MS in Agricultural Economics degree at NDSU (1925), a Bachelor of Laws degree at Lasalle University (1950) and an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Concordia College (1956).

In 1925 Thordarson was named assistant professor of agriculture and director of correspondence courses in agriculture at NDSU (then North Dakota Agricultural College). It was this appointment and the experiences he gained with correspondence courses in rural North Dakota that inspired Thordarson to approach the 1935 ND Legislature with an innovative plan of individualized high school instruction. He was successful with his request and was given space in Minard Hall on the NDSU campus to house the school.

By the 1940’s Thordarson had refined his design; he explained it this way. “Please understand that the Supervised Study is not a correspondence school in the sense you have so often heard the term. Ours is an institution built around the country or town school, upon which it depends for supervision of the student’s work. This is supervised study, and to that end that you [the student] may succeed, we have here at the State Center the finest faculty it is possible to bring together….”

By the early 1950’s Thordarson began actively marketing the school to a customer base whom he had determined had the most to gain by engaging with his creation. “Why is a small school considered an inferior school? Mainly because the students cannot get anything except the required subjects – the same fixed curriculum that fits less than 25% of the students. North Dakota, through Division of Supervised Study [NDCDE], offers you [a school] a way to offer a large variety of courses.”

NDCDE 2010-2015

It is this legacy comprised of two key components – 1) the Center insisting upon supervised study built around the local school upon which the Center depends for the supervision of the student’s work, and 2) providing to rural schools access to a large variety of courses – that North Dakota Center for Distance Education drew upon to begin its revitalization efforts in 2010.

The first work in 2010 was to define a mission for the Center that reflected its Thordarson-designed legacy and reflected what legislators over the many years since its founding had put into state law concerning the Center (distance education). The result was a mission that is measureable, and like Thordarson’s approach to education, holds the institution, its employees, and the students that seek an education, accountable.

NDCDE’s mission is to ensure that all North Dakota middle and high school students regardless of location have access to educational opportunities that meet or exceed expectations for

  • the quality of curriculum,
  • ongoing contact time with highly qualified teachers,
  • the selection and use of suitable educational technology,
  • monitoring course delivery efficiency and effectiveness, and
  • student learning.

The new mission made the work of the Center accountable in the following ways:

  • Traceable to ND Century Code
  • Focused on North Dakota students, and
  • Measureable

The new mission provided the rationale for a set of critical performance metrics; metrics that can be traced to credible sources. The metrics are:

  • Student Learning – How much did the student learn?
  • Quality Curriculum – What quality checks are in place and how effective?
  • Contact Time – How much clock time was spent interacting with a student?
  • Suitable Education Technology – Why was the technology selected and how effective was it?
  • Monitored Delivery – What problems were detected; were they corrected; and were they corrected permanently?

With its mission aligned to the intent of North Dakota’s state leaders, NDCDE in 2010 set about putting together an organizational model that could achieve success in a rapidly changing environment, and could sustain that success into a future, where change was likely to accelerate. NDCDE chose to install a process-based form of management. It is a management system that was developed to allow global companies with extended supply chains organize themselves to produce complex products. Global companies assemble products with components produced by suppliers (often smaller companies that are specialists in producing a part or component), often located in different countries. Unlike systems of the past, where the entire product was produced within one environment and thus had the same experienced hands, the same machines, the same people producing the final product, this new kind of system relies on finely tuned measurements of product and process. Measurements made possible because of a system’s process-based structure, allowing individual processes and the system to constantly assess and adjust as metrics indicate that adjustments are warranted.

And most important to NDCDE, rather than make its connections to students more distant, more segmented and less effective, students did better, relationships between teachers and students improved, and the system improved at a faster rate than it ever had before. Why? Not one action can take all the credit. However, what is central to what makes this kind of system work so well is its process-based structure. A process-based structure provides those who work in it a clear understanding of how the whole system works and how their work for that system impacts others in the system.

As a graphic, NDCDE’s organizational model looks like this –


How well has NDCDE done since the near closing in 2009?

  • Total enrollments for biennium 2009-2011 = 1200
  • Total enrollments for biennium 2013-2015 = 11,000
  • Enrollment mix for biennium 2009-2011 = 75% out-of-state, 25% ND
  • Enrollment mix for biennium 2013-2015 = 75% ND, 25% out-of-state
  • Percentage of students completing courses 2009-2011 = 54%
  • Percentage of students completing courses 2013-2015 = 94%
  • 129 online courses for biennium 2009-2011
  • 304 online courses for biennium 2013-2015
  • 0 online Agriculture courses for biennium 2009-2011
  • 22 online Agriculture courses for biennium 2013-2015
  • 127 ND schools served in biennium 2009-2011
  • 175 ND schools served in biennium 2013-2015
  • 300 credits produced by NDCDE students toward high school graduation 2009-2011
  • 4,150 credits produced by NDCDE students toward high school graduation 2013-2015
  • Percentage of students enrolled in print vs. online courses 2009-2011 = 50% / 50%
  • Percentage of students enrolled in print vs. online courses 2013-2014 = 10% / 90%
  • Average number of logins per hour to NDCDE’s system in biennium 2009-2011 = 25
  • Average number of logins per hour to NDCDE’s system in biennium 2013-2015 = 1,000

Price range of fees and tuition for out-of-state vs. ND 2009-2011 = $149-$425 / $149-$425
Price range of fees and tuition for out-of-state vs. ND 2013-2015 = $300-$400 / $85-$150

NDCDE 2015-2017 and beyond

Besides the continual improvement that will occur due to NDCDE’s process-based structure and its focus on accountability, NDCDE has launched a set of “21st Century” products and services, and is in the midst of identifying and putting in place those components that are necessary to assure NDCDE’s sustainability and viability for the next 80 years.

The 21st Century, new products and services thus far are these:

  • CLEM (College Lab for English and Math),
  • COLT (Course Only Local Teacher)
  • NDCDE’s High Tech Learning Lab, and
  • NDCDE/Presence Learning Special Education Service.

CLEM uses an innovative, online program with proven results to assist high school juniors and seniors improve their Math and English skills. The main focus currently is to significantly raise the students’ college entrance test scores by providing intense and focused practice in areas where CLEM’s online assessments indicate a student needs to improve. There are discussions at present that perhaps the entrance tests could be avoided, replaced by a mastery score achieved via CLEM.

COLT is intended to provide to teachers who teach in ND’s “brick and mortar” schools access to NDCDE’s courses for the local teachers’ use in their classrooms. The online courses are approved by DPI and AdvancED to comply with all requirements for grades 6-12. They are courses that NDCDE teachers use for their classes. These are courses purchased from award-winning curriculum developers. Classroom teachers will be given training to apply the online courses in their classrooms and will be supported with help from NDCDE teachers, as requested. COLT will allow classroom teachers to implement ‘blended learning’ in their classrooms without the overwhelming work of designing and developing their own online courses.

NDCDE’s High Tech Learning Lab is NDCDE’s move to support ‘project-based learning.’ Experts all agree that project-based, hands-on experiences, results in the highest possible student learning. NDCDE’s Lab will be used to support NDCDE’s diploma program students (full-time students), as well as local students and schools wanting to experience this hands-on, high tech approach. But the ultimate goal is not to make Lab accessible to area students only. NDCDE is working with the company that designed and developed the Lab to develop plans for a version of the Lab that could be installed in any school for a price that most schools could afford.

NDCDE/Presence Learning Special Education Services is a new program that is providing specialized services to Special Education students throughout North Dakota via the Special Education consortia and regional groups. Presence Learning is an online provider of specialists to enhance and support Special Education services. Presence’s niche is to provide experts to students and schools where there are no qualified experts available, or the qualified experts who are available are too expensive, or the number of students does not warrant a professional to be hired full-time, or even part-time. Currently there are several ND schools, consortia, and regions that are struggling to fulfill their Special Education obligations.

To assure NDCDE’s sustainability it has identified five areas that need to be improved, and/or better defined and/or completely revamped. Each area, provided as one word descriptions, comprise the following list:

  • Funding
  • Model
  • Place
  • Value-Add
  • People

Current funding leaves a lot to chance because it is overly dependent upon projections of student enrollments. Too few projected and the state would end up overspending on those students that do enroll. Not enough projected and NDCDE runs out of money prior to the end of the biennium. Set the price of courses too high and students don’t enroll. Set the prices of courses too low and there are not enough special funds to meet all needs. NDCDE will come forward with alternative funding proposals to the 2017 ND Legislative Session.

The model NDCDE could currently draw a comparison to, is a fire station. NDCDE finds and puts out all sorts of educational fires. A better model would be one of partnership with all ND schools. The goal would be to prevent fires rather than put them out after they have done their damage.

Place is related to model, but is more dependent upon policy-makers. What place do legislators wish the Center to take within the state system? Its current place is a result more of happenstance than intention. NDCDE could be more strategically used if it were strategically placed in the ND education system.

Value Add is more about the state recognizing what it has, than something that NDCDE must do in the future. NDCDE has become very good at identifying what customers expect in terms of the value- addition all educational organizations should provide in order to stay viable and sustainable. As yet, the state system has not leveraged the knowledge possessed by NDCDE.

NDCDE has very highly qualified people working for it. The problem is that it doesn’t have enough of them. NDCDE is well short of the number of FTE’s it needs to continue to do the work it can do for the people of North Dakota.

Eighty years ago T. W. Thordarson applying a true pioneering spirit developed something special on the prairies of North Dakota. Though the setting has changed somewhat in the ensuing eighty years, the challenges remain. North Dakota still has children in small, rural schools that are not provided educations equivalent to those in larger schools. The disparity is as evident as this. If you attend a school of 300 or less grades K-12 (approximately 130 of the 180 schools in ND) you will on average have a choice of 60 courses in your four high school years (grades 9-12). If you attend one of the ND’s 12 largest schools you have a choice of at least 180 courses during that same time frame. The average ACT score in ND’s 130 smallest schools is 19.0. The average ACT score in its largest schools is 21.0. It is now possible by leveraging our collective resources, which includes a better use of NDCDE, that inequity can be completely and forever removed.

But even though the disparity is troubling, we must also recognize the average scores of both groups are themselves a problem. What they mean is that an average high school graduate in North Dakota will need at least some form of remediation at the college level prior to being allowed to enroll in college level courses. This is not a new problem.
“As it was, most students needed preparatory classes before they were able to handle college coursework. So something needed to be done at the high school level.” President Merrifield,University of North Dakota, 1891.

NDCDE does not have all the answers, but it is one part of the solution. Used correctly, could all of parts of our education system assist students achieve higher levels of achievement by using available technology, combined with our latest discoveries about learning and how the brain works? We must hope so. It is this type of hope that is the spirit captured by Thordarson and recognized by Rockefeller.

What I know of the pioneers in my own North Dakota legacy, impressed upon me one fact: they did not fool around. They took life quite seriously because the consequences were severe. The consequences of withholding a world class education from any of ND’s children are serious. ND can do better. We know how; we have the resources, and we have the will to do it. We have ND Spirit!

Dr. Alan J. Peterson
State Director NDCDE

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