Florida demands for students to engage in digital learning are challenging for rural districts to meet due to lack of sufficient money, connectivity; state examines policy, access, latest technology

MIAMI , March 27, 2012 (press release) – As college presidents and school superintendents enthusiastically told state Board of Education members Tuesday about how technology is revolutionizing their classrooms, the superintendent of one of Florida's poorest school districts described how his own schools are struggling to cross the digital divide.

Putnam County Schools Superintendent Tom Townsend contrasted his community with Miami-Dade, where school officials raised $70 million through a matching grant for all county schools to have wireless Internet by next year.

His rural district where about a quarter of children live in poverty, has ventured into online learning too, he said, but faces significant challenges: A delayed broadband project, teachers that had been trained in another era, and of course, money.

"I envy a Miami-Dade that can raise $70 million," Townsend said. "That's not how we're going to solve our issues."

By the end of the meeting, the board was crafting plans to form a task force to look at several issues Townsend and others had raised in a broad ranging discussion about policy, access and the latest technology in K-12 and higher education.

The number of students taking advantage of virtual learning options is expanding across Florida, and high school students are now required to take one online class before graduating, but in rural districts those demands are more challenging to satisfy - even though their students are among those who have the most to gain.

A student interested in a high level science class, for example, might be able to take a course online that the district is unable to offer as a class at a small school.

Townsend noted that districts like his are making advances: Putnam County, in north central Florida, is using technology to evaluate students' mastery of academic standards throughout the school year. But there are fundamental weaknesses, like connectivity and lacking sufficient money to buy all the hardware that is needed.

"We see this as the great chance to catch up," Townsend told the board. "But there are some infrastructure pieces that have to be in place for us to take advantage."

At the college level, online learning is also expanding rapidly: Over the last 15 years, the number of students taking an online class at one of Florida's 28 colleges has risen from about 16,600 to 268,000. In all, about 33 percent of students took an online course in the 2010-11 school year. Many college-level degrees can now be completed entirely online.

"Growth rates are unprecedented," said Steve Wallace, president of Florida State College at Jacksonville, where more than 39,000 students last year took online classes.

He said many students no longer buy textbooks, either because they are too expensive or because they refuse to, out of principle. He said the cost of textbooks - which can stretch past $200 - is exacerbating student debt.

The school has now created digital textbook materials, called Sirius, which Wallace said will enhance how students learn and save them money. He gave the example of the Civil War. Traditionally, students would read a textbook and take a test. With the digital learning materials, students will be able to utilize interactive tools, like access to an online encyclopedia and podcasts to further explore topics that interest them.

In the case of the Civil War, students could touch a button and bring up a battle scene from the movie "Gettysburg." The system could even tell a student if they might be related to a Civil War general, and in the future, let them see what it's like to charge across a field in uniform, Wallace said.

Bill Law, president of St. Petersburg College, compared the expansion of online learning options to the turmoil that print publications have experienced in the online era. Now students can go to a host of online sources to take a college class, some independent of any university.

"I think we look like the newspaper industry, and I don't think that's a very happy place to land," Law said.

"But some of the industry is figuring it out," board chair Kathleen Shanahan replied, adding that it doesn't have to be a negative, but rather, an opportunity.

"But they didn't figure it out on day one," Law said.

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