OKLAHOMA CITY – Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, held an interim study today to explore opportunities to advance educational achievement for children and adults through online and distance learning.
The study was held before the House Technology Committee.
“We must provide every educational opportunity to every student that we can in Oklahoma,” Williams said. “Online and distance learning are helping us reach students and adults that need options. I brought together stakeholders from many different sectors today to discuss where we are and what our challenges are moving forward to help our kids and our adults reach their highest level of success. Improved education equals better families, better communities and a better state.”
Representatives from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, the State Department of Education, Oklahoma CareerTech, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs, the Oklahoma Children & Youth Coalition and from Tulsa Community College and Epic Charter Schools each presented during the study and answered questions from lawmakers.
Brad Griffith with Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education said the appetite for online learning is growing in the state, accelerated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
Dr. Tom McKeon, also with the Regents, said in 2020 the state’s higher education system transitioned 173,000 students from face-to-face learning to online.
Many presenters spoke of the challenges that exist in connectivity to affordable, high speed internet in the state.
Griffith said Oklahoma is currently only the 26th most connected state in terms of broadband access. Increasing access, particularly in rural areas, is a must to make online and even distance learning successful, he said. An infusion of $4 million in federal grants has helped, he said.
Tiffany Neill with the Oklahoma State Department of Education said many K-12 schools are offering students mobile hotspots and individual devices, but in areas with limited cell service this is still a challenge.
While online models were necessary during the onset of the pandemic and are gaining in popularity, most presenters agreed the blended model – where students meet with the teacher and peers at least part of the time – is best for students.
In person, teachers can spot students that might have issues such as food insecurity, having clean clothes, being excessively tired because of problems at home, or other things that might hamper learning.
Crystal Miller with the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education said it’s important to see students in person to really assess how they are and to see how they are interacting with the material being taught. She said she’s tried to solve this in a variety of ways, reaching out to students individually more often, sharing computer screens to show how she’s grading their work, making sure to engage students more in project learning with their peers and to ensure they don’t just know the answer but can do the work required.
Neill said research shows the most effective learning is synchronous – meaning students watch teachers in real time and can ask questions – and that takes place in small groups, such as 25 or less.
She said many schools are trying a variety of options to increase access to online learning. Some districts have co-opted with others, sharing teachers in subjects not available at the other districts. Others are taking advantage of the Oklahoma Supplemental Online Course Program, where students can access Advanced Placement courses not offered at their school. Eleven schools in the state are taking part in a pilot program that offers online fine arts courses for districts that lack these offerings.
Presenters also spoke about the need to go after students that have dropped from education for one reason or another, with financial or family struggles being the biggest barriers. This is happening at the K-12 level through alternative education, but it’s also happening in higher education.
Dr. Debbie Blanke with the Regents said one push is to pursue students that have some college coursework and a high grade-point average but who for whatever reason have not completed their education. She said finding convenient, accelerated and affordable options for these people will help them earn degrees or certifications. This can turn into better jobs with higher satisfaction and higher pay, paying dividends beyond the individual.
Dr. McKeon said there are 300,000 adults in Oklahoma that have some college but no degree. At the same time there are areas of the workforce where critical shortages exist – such as teaching; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, nursing and others.
One goal is to incentivize people to complete their degrees by offering scholarships, working with potential employers to develop internships and provide jobs upon completion and more. He also thanked the Legislature for targeting funding toward these critical workforce areas and toward micro-credentialing students that already have workforce experience and just need to up-skill.
Lawmakers also heard from those who spoke of the need for increased distance and online learning opportunities for those who are in the juvenile justice or adult correctional systems. Helping inmates secure certifications or degrees or at least their Adult Basic Education certificate or General Education Degree (GED) can help cut down on recidivism and issues such as systemic poverty.
Nicole Ellison, managing director of college and career readiness for Epic Charter Schools, spoke about the need to help students that take longer than the traditional four years to graduate, and how the flexibility of online courses help. They also help students struggling with homeless or who are living on their own, trying to maintain a job, maybe raising a child while also trying to graduate high school.
She said there’s also a need to offer more wrap-around services, including online learning options, for students that age out of the public school system after their 21st birthday.