After $6 Million, Idaho’s Online Higher Education Program Closes in on Launch
This fall, two students from each college in Idaho will register for their fall classes through a new statewide online portal — and the state will cover the costs.
The 16-student pilot represents a “stress test” for Online Idaho, a new effort to offer college courses beyond the state’s college campuses. It’s also a small step in a milestone, millions of dollars in the State Board of Education project.
The State Board has so far invested more than $6 million in Online Idaho, all from federal coronavirus relief. In a few years, when federal aid runs out, ongoing annual costs could be as high as $3 million per year. And so far, only one student has registered through Online Idaho.
State Board officials say they are consciously avoiding enrollment targets, for now. Instead, they say they try to create a positive experience, where students can find the courses they need. By definition, it is a qualitative objective.
“But it’s quality that keeps our students coming back to our institutions,” said Jonathan Lashley, the council’s associate academic director.
But state board staffers acknowledge that at some point, board appointees will want to see quantifiable signs of enrollment growth.
“The board eventually has to look at the numbers,” said director of studies TJ Bliss.
A pre-pandemic program
Policymakers started talking about an Idaho-like concept online in 2017, long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced higher education to go virtual.
Five years ago, then governor. Butch Otter assembled a Higher Education Task Force to research ways to encourage more Idahoans to complete college. One recommendation: A statewide digital campus to serve “location- or time-limited” students, such as rural residents or adults hoping to juggle jobs and classes.
Then came 2020. A few months into the pandemic, the state agreed to use federal coronavirus assistance to start what was then known as Idaho Online, starting with a $4 installment. millions of dollars. Using an inventory of existing online programs at two- and four-year colleges across the state, the goal was to determine how to distribute these courses across the state.
It may seem simple, but it is neither easy nor cheap. Much of the federal money has gone into setting up a Shared Learning Management System, a network to share and administer online courses. The state has embraced Canvas, an industry leader in LMS. Seven of Idaho’s eight colleges and universities are switching to Canvas, and the only holdout, Idaho State University, is considering it.
While software has been a big expense in Idaho’s online rollout, the pandemic has also provided the State Board with training on how the virtual college should work.
The pandemic didn’t just spur the State Council to launch the online portal — while providing an infusion of federal money the state needed to spend on education.
The pandemic has also forced educators and students to take a closer look at the potential and pitfalls of online learning.
As professors moved classes online, out of necessity, they also took classes from colleagues who had experience and skills in a virtual environment. There has been a growing realization that effective online learning means more than just moving a class to Zoom.
“Online education is a craft,” Bliss said. “There are ways to do it well and there are ways to do it really badly.”
Meanwhile, policymakers got a better idea of what students wanted in terms of an online college education. Students may not want all of their classes online, but they may want the option of fitting an online class into their schedule. And just as instructors need professional development when embarking on online teaching, students sometimes need help preparing online, Lashley said.
And while the State Board tried to build the infrastructure for Online Idaho, Lashley also spent a lot of time holding informal discussions with staff and students, to better understand how to build the program itself.
Who could Online Idaho serve
Fully built, the platform could serve a variety of student groups.
- Online Idaho could provide a platform for the state’s online cybersecurity major — a curriculum shared across the higher education system.
- Online Idaho could provide the link that allows a student from one college or university to take a course from another college or university. This could make it easier for students to get the GED credits they need and stay on track to graduating. And the only student who registered through Online Idaho was a student from North Idaho College who was looking to take a course and lab through the University of Idaho — an online lab not available through NIC.
- And Online Idaho could provide the pathway for mature students and rural students to return to college. It’s a complicated business. Logistically, it is easier to serve students who are already enrolled in the system, as opposed to enrolling new students from rural Idaho. And there’s not much value to a student who just enrolls in a random class, without the support that could put that student on the path to a degree. “It’s so easy for this student to get lost in the mix,” Lashley said.
A gradual deployment
Idaho’s online rollout was deliberately slow.
The State Board did not announce the service, instead focusing on training advisers on how the course exchange could help students.
“As expected, we have limited signups so far as we have limited our promotion of the service,” Lashley said. “This will evolve over the academic year now that the implementation is complete.”
During a presentation to the State Board in June, board members discussed ongoing cost projections — a possible bill of $3 million a year, mostly due to the ongoing cost of Canvas subscriptions. .
Board member David Hill has a long-term view of the path to enrollment growth. Hill said he wanted to see students within the system, crossing borders to take courses on other campuses. Next, he will want to see new students coming in from outside the traditional campus structure. “(That’s) the real goal here,” he said.
When council member Cally Roach asked Lashley for a prediction on how many students it would take to pay for the program — and when Idaho will get there — Lashley didn’t make a prediction.
Instead, he said it would be difficult to achieve large-scale course sharing across eight campuses. What Idaho needs to do first is determine which students will benefit the most from the online portal and which students will benefit first.
“We really don’t have that clear and specific state strategy yet,” he said.
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