It’s no secret that Montana has long struggled with educational opportunity gaps in its rural and urban schools, but recent innovations from the Montana Digital Academy are working to fill them.
Established in 2009 by the state legislature, MTDA partners with K-12 public schools across Montana to provide online options for students to complete their local schoolwork. Using e-learning software like Open LMS and EdReady, the institution offers both credit recovery courses for failing students and original credit courses.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to switch to remote learning, the digital academy saw an influx of new interest.
“It was a huge increase,” said Andy Braden, a representative for Open LMS. “Our usage nearly doubled in a month when the shutdowns really started happening.”
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Initially, the academy focused on credit recovery, but over time they discovered that more and more schools were signing up to their original course offerings. As a result, these options are now 60% larger than the academy credit recovery options.
Now, more students from Eureka to Stanford to Roberts have access to dual-credit courses and advanced placement courses and electives like astronomy and oceanography.
“That’s really where we’re at right now is to provide the ability to access the same coursework for any student, regardless of location,” Braden said. “There are classes with six students who have access to advanced placement courses now that they may not have had access to before.”
Along with increased accessibility, offerings give students the ability to start and stop lessons at their own pace, while interactive content and automation personalize lessons to the student. The result is a tailored approach based on individual needs.
“We’ve learned over time that struggling students can’t just be given a list of links to read,” said MTDA CEO Jason Neiffer. “They need a lot more guidance from the online environment to be successful.”
Previous online tools used by the academy were limited to texts for review and testing. He has since moved on to presenting, reviewing and mastering the material individually before moving on and being assessed.
“And that sounds simple, but this change allowed students to prove their mastery [of the material] and not feeling overwhelmed if they have large portions of the class to take over,” Neiffer said.
Where the digital academy also differs from purely online classes is the presence of public school teachers from across Montana monitoring each class. Where the curriculum determines the curriculum and classroom work, teachers are there to help students.
“Feedback is a big part of my job,” said Casey Visser, professor of American history at Billings Career Center, who also teaches part-time MTDA classes during the summer. Students “will submit any project and, like my physics class, I’ll say, ‘Hey, great job, but have you thought about this, this, and that? ‘” Visser said.
Due to the physical distance between them and students, teachers like Visser stay in touch with students through emails, texts and phone calls and recent feedback indicates that this approach has been successful.
Since the start of the pandemic, data collected by the digital academy has shown successes in both academic achievement and student approval. A recent study reported that 65% of students enrolled in the program recovered credits they had previously failed while around 90% of students said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their online courses.
Since he began teaching classes in 2016, Visser has noticed that abandoning strict learning to pass exams is one of the reasons students not only succeed, but respond positively to course work. .
“It sounds corny, but good teaching is good teaching,” he said. “Be flexible, adaptable, approachable. That’s true in the classroom and it’s true here too.
Although the MTDA is heavily subsidized by the state, they have adopted a cost-sharing system with each school involved to determine which courses they wish to provide and for which they are willing to pay. This approach ensures that courses are provided free of charge to students. Although schools large and small are responsible for some expenses, Neifer says most schools have found a way to make it work.
“Obviously, over the past year, additional funds have been made available by the federal government and distributed by the state,” Neiffer said. “But we’ve also found that districts have been very creative in making sure they can deliver what they intend to deliver to their students, whether that’s access to foundations community to help defray these costs or other program funds they would otherwise have used.”
The biggest hurdle currently for rural Montana is increased access to broadband infrastructure. Neiffer said the biggest eye-opener was the number of people in rural Montana living in areas with one or no broadband options.
“We heard a lot of stories of students who worked hard enough to find internet access to complete their education,” he said. “I think we need more work to incentivize companies to develop additional routes for broadband or to help these communities answer these questions themselves.”