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Maine Lawmaker Scales Back Online School Proposal
02/11/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

A Maine lawmaker is amending his bill to launch a state-run, virtual school. Instead, Rep. Brian Langley, an Ellsworth Republican, now proposes creating an online portal called the Maine Digital Learning Exchange. Langley says the exchange will offer students in Maine the same online learning opportunities they'd get through a virtual academy, without forcing the Maine Department of Education to come up with the millions of dollars required to launch a state-run, online school from scratch.

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Langley's bill, as originally written, also calls for a temporary moratorium on any virtual charter schools in Maine. There are currently two online charters going through the state approval process. And not surprisingly, their supporters have made some of the strongest arguments against a state-run virtual academy.

Why, they ask, when a thorough vetting of two virutal charters is already underway should the state turn around and spend millions to launch its own online school?

"Senator Langley, over the time since our public hearing, has some ideas he'd like to propose to the committee and that is one of the handouts eveyone has received," said state Sen. Rebecca Millet, a Cape Elizabeth Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

As copies of Langley's amendment were passed out, Millet turned the floor over to her colleague. As he introduced the change, it became clear that some of the concerns about the cost of a state-run virutal academy had hit home.

"First amendment to this bill would be that we'd move from creating a virtual academy to the Maine Digital Learning Exchange, which should have some tremendous fiscal savings," Langley said.

The idea, says Langley, came from testimony at the earlier public hearing on the bill by Ken Coville. He's superintendent in RSU 74, a five-community district in western Maine. In a state-run virtual academy, Coville says there would likely be a single curriculum, with a single set of courses.

"The idea of an exchange is to have the entire universe of digital learning resources available to students, educators and parents throughout Maine. Everything from individual lessons and instructional activities to entire courses," Coville said.

Roughly 50 Maine high schools are already taking part in a digital learning collaborative launched last fall that blends regular classroom instruction with online learning. And other Maine schools are experimenting, piecemeal, with virutal education too. The Maine Digital Learning Collaborative would act as a kind of online educational portal, where current virutal learning initiatives are merged with new approaches yet to be tried.

For this bill to have any kind of future beyond the committee stage, Langley is going to have to win the support of at least some Republicans. That may explain why he was quick to note that his idea fits perfectly with Gov. Paul LePage's Executive Order to expand opportunites for digital learning.

"In essence it uses a marketplace for competition to reduce the cost and raise the quality of digital learning," Langley said.

Creating a state-run virtual academy would cost millions of dollars. How much Langley's new approach would save is open to debate. Jeff Mao is the learning technology policy director for the Maine Department of Education. He says lawmakers shouldn't assume that a digital learning portal will be any easier to build than a full-blown virtual academy.

"In order to really have this fully functional, we're talking about the construction of a system that is soup to nuts, because in order to capture that usage data, you've got to have the learning platform - so, that environment where they're actually going in and doing the work, be it blended or fully online," Mao said. "And that's not an easy lift, because now you have to sync that system with your student information system, because you've got to have your kids enrolled in the system."

The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will resume work on the virtual learning bill in a work session Wednesday.


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