Where Do NDCDE Courses Fit in a ND School’s Curriculum?

October 10, 2014

Where do NDCDE courses fit in a ND school’s curriculum? This is a question that I have been fielding for over four years – ever since I was hired as state director of the Center for Distance Education. The honest answer doesn’t satisfy many who ask the question. The answer is “that depends.”

Why does it depend?

First, and perhaps foremost, the fit depends upon state law. ND state law enacted to govern K-12 education is highly respectful of local control, that is, local control as exerted by the local school board. The local school board has a great deal of discretion regarding what can or cannot be offered at the school or district it governs. The control is supported both practically and philosophically by the manner in which the ND legislature funds public K-12 education. ND state funding of K-12 public education is assigned to the district, not to the individual student. Yes, the number of students in the district is the basis for the funds that are allocated to the district, but the funds allocated to the individual student are not portable. The funding is owned by the district on behalf of the student. Thus the funding for a school is controlled by the district’s school board, not the individual students and their parents.

As a consequence, NDCDE, which has no physical district of its own, does not have a direct route to acquire funding like other schools in ND. It is funded by a combination of a direct, one-time allocation from ND’s Treasury in the form of general funds, once every two years; and the remainder coming from fees NDCDE charges for its courses.

The bottom line for students who take courses from NDCDE is that they need to obtain permission of their local school, if they plan to enroll in a course from NDCDE and have the course paid for by their local school. They can, of course, enroll in a course and have their family pay the fee, but unless they are planning to home school, they will need to seek permission from the local school to be afforded the time and authority to enroll in the course even if mom and dad are paying for the course.

Second, a key determining factor is how the leadership of the local school views the validity and efficacy of online courses. If they are convinced that online instruction is equivalent to in-house instruction, then the school will allow students, and even encourage their students, to take advantage of the wide-ranging choices of elective courses available to them via NDCDE; choices that are not available to them at their local school.

Third, and what has become increasing necessary in North Dakota, is for NDCDE to provide courses to schools unable to hire qualified teachers, particularly in the case of teachers for required courses. A derivative of this situation is when the school is only able to fill a specific part of its teacher vacancy due to an available teacher’s licensure. In these situations NDCDE works with the school to make sure there are trained supervisors in the classrooms with the students in addition to the NDCDE teacher, who will be supporting the class from a distance via several communications venues.

I have been told directly and/or have inferred from several conversations over the past four years that NDCDE is attempting to replace local schools’ classroom teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. To be honest it would be dumb on NDCDE’s part to do so. One, we would be ignoring some solid research that confirms the need for teachers to be present for students; and two, we would be ignoring the social implications of removing a needed teaching professional from a community.

NDCDE’s teachers spend a lot of time building trusting relationships with students. On one hand it is somewhat easier in an online environment to build a relationship with a student because online teachers deal with individual students at most times. But on the other hand, the meetings must be scheduled. Spontaneity is not something that is easily supported from a distance. Teaching moments must be carefully planned. Interventions need to be predictable.

NDCDE recognizes that the best research about learning in a school setting, whether it is virtual or face-to-face, emphasizes that two elements are most important. One is an effective teacher. The other is an intelligent and comprehensive use of class time.

I use that as segue to end this blog.

I am convinced that blended learning, that is, where some parts of lessons are supported online, while others are hands-on face-to-face events, will ultimately take over and replace most of what is now done in K-12 education. And if it doesn’t, it should.

Teachers in classrooms shouldn’t be wasting time writing lesson plans and concerning themselves with state or national objectives as learning objects unto themselves; they should be assisting kids who are working with well-designed, online curricula that has all the requirements. standards, and whatever else is necessary already embedded. This ‘super’ curricula can then be integrated with hands on, project-based applications. The teacher works one-to-one with students making the best use his or her time and expertise.

For the record, I am not talking about the current approach that advocates the flipped classroom. It doesn’t work consistently enough. Talk to many teachers who have been in schools that implemented flipped courses as many as 10 years ago. They will tell you that the flipped approach doesn’t work well, or at least not as well as advertised. I would contend that is predictable. Not enough is changed by the flipping.

However, systemic change and reorganization that can be accomplished with a blended learning approach done intelligently and comprehensively, can result in impressive gains. This is the direction NDCDE will take.

The result will be a highbred delivery approach where local teachers will become “online” teachers within their individual classrooms. NDCDE will be in place to provide help in the many situations where help is needed. Also, NDCDE will focus on making sure the system works; this includes being responsible for assuring that the providers of curriculum produce and support students and teachers to the level of quality we want and need for our kids.

The result would be communities of adults, some of them teachers, many of them not, and kids. These are communities that will be as autonomous or interdependent as they chose to be. No more winners and losers.

Someday we will get there. 

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