Maryland currently doesn’t have a requirement that high school students take an online class as a condition for graduation.
Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he thinks it’s time for such a requirement.
“Hearing from the kids that I have dealt with in Washington County Public Schools system, this is how they want to learn,” Shank said. “It is the type of learning environment that they are accustomed to and this is what they will be expected to do when they get to college and when they move into the work force.”
Shank said that’s why he introduced a bill during the current session of the Maryland General Assembly that would require high school students in the state to complete one online course before they graduate.
But after significant opposition to the bill — which was cross-filed by Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, in the House of Delegates — surfaced, Shank amended it to require the Maryland Advisory Council for Virtual Learning to find out about the resources needed to support a requirement of a compulsory online course in high schools or a course that blended digital content and a traditional classroom learning experience.
“There were concerns about the graduation requirement,” Shank said. “The amended version of the bill keeps the idea of a graduation requirement and the state starting virtual schools in motion, but it delegates it to the virtual learning council and tasks them with looking at this issue and reporting back to the General Assembly next year.”
Shank said Thursday at a hearing for the amended bill in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee that it was important to find out the experience of other states when it comes to virtual schools and similar graduation requirements, according to an electronic transcript of the hearing.
The state’s virtual learning council was created as a result of a bill filed by Shank, and cross-filed by Serafini, during the 2012 session of the Maryland General Assembly. Shank and Serafini are part of the council, which is headed by Lillian M. Lowery, Maryland’s state superintendent of schools.
The original version of the bill filed in this session by Shank was opposed by several state organizations, including the Maryland State Department of Education, Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland, Maryland State Education Association and the Maryland PTA.
“The State Board has traditionally held the role of setting graduation requirements, not the legislature,” Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the department of education, said in an email.
The department, in a letter to the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has suggested a feasibility study be conducted that would look at factors such as cost and availability of trained instructors.
“I think it is important to make this distinction that it’s not opposition to virtual learning,” Shank said. “It is opposition to the way in which this is implemented.”
He pointed to states such as Florida that already have an online requirement for graduating from high school, and said he is excited by current projects at Washington County Technical High School that could be a model for the state.
“Over at Tech High, they are doing some amazing things,” Shank said.
At Tech High
Martin Nikirk, who teaches computer game development and animation at Washington County Technical High School, said his students are researching a possible virtual tutorial course that included building a 3D model of a virtual world.
“While the teacher directs the instruction, online learning may assist in content delivery, student discussion through chat and social media, and content mastery,” Nikirk said in an email.
Online learning helps those who cannot attend “traditional classes,” those who need remediation and those students seeking advanced learning, he said.
Nikirk said his experience has been that online teaching leads to more participation by students in class discussions.
The student viewpoint
Amanda Krehbiel, who is the student representative on the Washington County Board of Education, said although she likes the idea of integrating technology into education, “I find it difficult to like the idea of adding another requirement for graduation.”
Krehbiel wondered if online learning could be included into already required classes such as Health and Life Skills.
“Could we kill two birds with one stone and make Health and Life Skills an online course, so that both requirements are met at the same time?” Krehbiel wrote in an email.
If the goal is to teach young adults to understand online classes, that goal should be approached carefully, she said, so that students are allowed “some freedom of scheduling ... while making it a meaningful experience.”
“The majority of high school students today are already computer literate, so anything that is required beyond that should be teaching those students more advanced skills,” Krehbiel said.
An analysis of the original bill, which included the compulsory online learning requirement, by the state’s Department of Legislative Services, said that school district expenditures might rise significantly if students were required to complete an online course.
The analysis said that costs for the proposal cannot be calculated at this time, but a rough estimate by legislative services pegs the costs at $19 million annually for the state’s school districts.
There also might be a need for fewer high school teachers, but that would depend on staffing needs of local school districts, according to the analysis.
Reinhard said the MSDE also was against the original bill because of a “lack of financial support for the local school systems included in the proposal.”
The Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland, the Maryland PTA and the Maryland State Education Association also opposed the original version of the bill, according to written testimony filed against the legislation.
The Maryland PTA opposed the original bill because the organization feels that a compulsory online requirement would place a burden on students who might not have access to technology outside the school.
“And it leaves our students who may need additional ‘hands on’ assistance due to learning challenges at a distinct disadvantage,” the letter of opposition stated.
Many schools do not have the technology for the courses and the bill doesn’t provide guidance on how to pay for the costs, according to the organization.
The Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland also opposed the initial bill because “by the time this legislation suggests this requirement commence, technology will have advanced far beyond courses as currently designed.”
The Maryland State Education Association was against the original bill because it has a “standing opposition” to curriculum requirements that are legislatively mandated, according to testimony filed against the bill.