Online learning system could end school snow days

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Education leaders hope the state's implementation of Project 24, a digital learning initiative, could eliminate snow days as we know them.

The way state Board of Education member Mike Green sees it, the project could mean a school system facing an inordinate number of snow days -- like many did this year -- would not have to cancel classes.

"Instead of the scrawl going across the bottom of the screen saying school is closed, it will say, 'Go to plan B' or whatever terminology we come up with that means that we are now going to a plan where our kids are going to be doing things online or even, hopefully, interfacing with our teachers so that education continues 24/7," Green said. "That's the big picture."

The Alliance for Excellent Education -- a national organization overseen by former Gov. Bob Wise -- launched Project 24 as a tool to assess where school districts are when it comes to digital learning and how if affects college and career readiness.

As part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's call for education reform, West Virginia is set to become the first state in the country to implement the system statewide.

The goal is to get a laptop or tablet in every student's hands and provide Internet access to all, which would end learning gaps perpetuated by time outside of school and provide equal opportunity, said Green, who has helped lead the project and has an extensive background in technology, including working as a software developer for the National Security Agency.

"The long-term plan obviously means we're going to have to have excellent Internet access available to every child in the state, hopefully in the home," Green said. "That's the goal. We don't have the solution in hand now. We are working on a solution, and those problems are technology problems, and all technology problems have a financial component."

West Virginia, where more than half of public school students come from low-income families, has other unique hurdles for the project, such as rural, mountainous geography that makes it hard for wireless Internet connections to thrive, said Sterling Beane, chief technology officer for the state Department of Education.

"There are huge hurdles, especially in West Virginia. Anywhere you see these types of programs being implemented across the country, they're in small pockets -- you don't see statewide implementation because it's very difficult," Beane said. "There's lots of ground we need to cover, but it's definitely something that's worthwhile and needs to be done, and we're getting closer."

With unique problems come unique solutions, Beane said, including a plan to work with Internet providers to extend their federally administered and heavily discounted services to the homes of students.

According to a report released by the Alliance in January, the state has made some progress in preparing for digital learning but has a lot to accomplish in terms of infrastructure and technology before implementing the program in schools.

For instance, there is a large disparity between urban and rural school systems when it comes to infrastructure.

The Alliance gave West Virginia an overall score of 6.9 out of 10 for digital learning readiness.

The Department of Education is now forming "stakeholder groups" to gather information and gauge interest in the project and soon will announce the software it's chosen for a pilot version of the project, according to Beane.

"The ultimate goal is to create a plan for digital learning so that students are not bound by the brick and mortar of schools. They can certainly work digitally while they're there, but there will be the ability for anywhere, anytime learning," Beane said. "So, it's not a big deal if school is canceled because of snow. Students can simply get up and log on to their device and interact with their teachers virtually, and then we never miss a day of school."