LePage executive order seeks to expand digital learning options

Stephen Bowen, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, displays an iPad science app during a break in June 2011 at the 100th annual School Superintendents and Assistant Superintendents Conference in Augusta. &quotWe've got to transform," he said about public education.
Stephen Bowen, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, displays an iPad science app during a break in June 2011 at the 100th annual School Superintendents and Assistant Superintendents Conference in Augusta. "We've got to transform," he said about public education. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 01, 2012, at 12:04 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 01, 2012, at 3:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage directed his education commissioner on Wednesday to develop a plan that increases online learning opportunities for Maine’s K-12 students

The executive order is the latest in a series of reforms rolled out recently by LePage and Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen that highlight the administration’s commitment to expanding education options beyond the traditional classroom.

“It’s really about, if a kid wants to take Latin because he’s headed to medical school and he lives in Alexander, how can we get that kid a Latin course? It’s as simple as that,” Bowen said in an interview Tuesday.

The idea grew out of an online learning bill, LD 675, introduced last session that ultimately failed.

“We couldn’t get it where we wanted it to be, so we decided to sort of back up and do something else,” Bowen said.

That something else is to create a strategic plan, using other states’ successes as a model, that provides students more opportunities in an increasingly digital world.

“Our students must be engaged in school, and they need to gain the skills essential to success in the 21st-century economy,” LePage said in a statement. “With widespread access to digital learning opportunities, and with teachers who are experts in bringing digital content into daily instruction, our students can gain the preparation they need for college, careers and civic life.”

The order directs Bowen and his staff to consult students, parents, educators, technology experts and others in crafting the plan. Among other things, the plan should address how students can access online classes as part of their educational experience and how schools can leverage online resources to allow students to study topics schools might not be able to offer in-house.

Like other recent education initiatives, this one could face opposition.

The Maine Education Association, the state teachers’ union, has been somewhat skeptical of expanding digital or virtual learning in Maine.

MEA President Chris Galgay said he looks forward to a good discussion in the coming months but cautioned against jumping into the digital fray too quickly.

“Over the course of the past decade, online or ‘virtual’ learning has grown from a novelty to a full-fledged movement. The research has begun to trickle in and the results are alarming,” Galgay said. “In states like Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and others, research has shown that online schools are not up to the task of providing quality education to students.”

In Ohio, Galgay said, a virtual charter school has enrolled more than 10,000 students and yet those students’ test scores are in the bottom 1 percent for the state. In Colorado, he said, more than $100 million has been spent on online schools, but test scores for online students lag behind their counterparts in traditional schools.

Bowen confirmed that he would look at other states to see if it make sense to bring versions of their programs to Maine. He mentioned Florida, which has developed a state-run virtual classroom that is accessible to all schools, and New Hampshire, which recently launched a virtual charter school.

The education commissioner also acknowledged that funding could be a hurdle to any drastic changes.

One of the pieces of Bowen’s digital learning strategic plan will include a new request for proposals for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. The MLTI was a then-unprecedented idea from former Gov. Angus King that provided Maine middle school students with Apple laptops. That program has since expanded to include high school students.

The current MLTI contract with Apple runs through the 2012-13 school year, but Bowen said he and his staff need to start thinking soon about how to structure the next contract.

Bowen said when the MLTI initiative was first launched, he was teaching in Camden.

“There was no real content to use then, now it’s everywhere,” he said. “We need to ask ‘How does this content work its way into traditional teaching practices?’”

The executive order sets a deadline of January 2013 for a report back to the Legislature’s Education Committee.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who sponsored the online learning bill that died last session, said he was under the impression that a digital learning piece already was part of a master plan Commissioner Bowen rolled out two weeks ago.

“The governor and I agree that Maine should explore the merits and costs of online learning. However, the governor’s executive order duplicates the very efforts already undertaken by the legislature and the commissioner,” Alfond said. “I would like to see the governor work with us on enriching educational opportunities for our youth — not redoubling existing efforts.”

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