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Wired for success: Alabama's ACCESS to distance learning.


E For high school students in Alabama, virtual classrooms are as ubiquitous as the 16mm movie projectors were for their previous generations. In a time frame of only 6 years, the state became the third largest virtual school in the nation and the first one to equip all high schools with both videoconferencing and web-based learning labs (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp, 2010). The statewide initiative is called Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide (ACCESS). When considering how such an incredible feat was accomplished so quickly, one must address the diffusion of innovation theory. Rogers (1995) describes the diffusion of innovation as the "process in which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among members of the social system" (p. 5). Some of the specific elements contributing to the ACCESS's diffusion included the following: a student-centered mission, the selected instructional modes of delivery, highly qualified e-teachers, state oversight, and periodic program assessments by an outside evaluator.


A Governor's Task Force on Distance Education, led by Governor Bob Riley, met in 2004-2005 to discuss strategies for launching a virtual school program designed to make education more equitable for every public high school student. In doing so, they focused on several deficiencies in the school system:

* Alabama's high school graduation rate ranked well below the national level.

* School administrators in small and rural districts faced challenges with recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers as required by No Child Left Behind.

* Alabama ranked 14 out of 16 southern states in the areas related to Advanced Placement exams among juniors and seniors--administering only 99 exams per 1,000 students in 2003.

* Many schools in the state did not offer foreign languages and advanced mathematics and science courses which prepare students for college-level coursework and enhance workforce development skills.

* Many schools did not have the funding needed for technological upgrades.

From the aforementioned deficiencies, the task force members formulated a list of objectives to guide their vision. Objectives for the pilot program were to provide access to advanced diploma courses, provide access to additional course offerings, provide access to advanced placement or dual credit courses, provide access to remediation and supplemental resources, leverage existing resources and distance learning offerings, and provide teachers with additional multimedia and technology tools to enhance instruction.

Task force members decided on a strategic plan that would include an incremental process consisting of a year-long planning period, a pilot phase, and a gradual expansion through two final phases. Governor Riley announced the ACCESS idea in 2005, and the initiative was introduced to students in 24 selected high schools the next year. The task force's original plan was to equip all public high schools with distance learning technology by the 2010 school year; however, all 371 high schools were furnished with videoconferencing and web-based capability ahead of schedule in 2009.


According to Meredith and Newton (2003), three strands must converge to ensure the success of an eLearning intervention: learner capability, technology, and teacher pedagogy. This is an important finding because some institutions might be more concerned with the technology aspects of distance education, rather factoring in the student and teaching aspects of the model. Similarly, an institution that heavily focuses on the teaching pedagogy of distance education without considering how technology and the needs of students will factor into the equation could also be detrimental to the program's success.


Access to technology does not always guarantee successful learning outcomes. One of the most important factors for educators to consider is the students' previous experience with technology. Prieger and Hu (2008) surmise that people who live in rural areas and those in low-income families are not as comfortable with using technology as other groups who have had more exposure to technology. Thirty-two percent of Alabama's students live in rural and impoverished areas. In an effort to ease the comfort levels of such students and to also gain an assessment of their learning styles, advisors with the ACCESS program consult with all potential distance learning participants before they are allowed to register for courses.

Age is another factor to consider when conducting an analysis of e-learners. ACCESS's demographics consist of students in Grades 9-12. The program is now beginning to expand into middle schools, offering high school courses for advanced students. Some young or novice distance learners are not ready to assume new responsibilities "such as monitoring their own learning goals, setting priorities, and controlling the pace of learning" (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011, p. 243). Although they might be academically capable and technologically adept, secondary students might struggle in distance learning classes due to certain maturity levels needed to manage the autonomous nature of being separated from their teachers.

ACCESS offers courses for traditional and nontraditional students. In 2010, "ACCESS provided 29,415 student enrollments in courses needed by students to meet graduation requirements and 11,746 additional enrollments in noncredit remediation modules for the Alabama High School Graduation Exam and Career Forward" (ACCESS, 2010, p. 5). Palloff and Pratt (2007, p. 8) identified characteristics typically associated with successful distance learners:

* Open-minded about sharing life, work, and educational experiences as part of the learning process

* Able to communicate through writing

* Self-motivated and self-disciplined

* Willing to "speak up" if problems arise

* Able to meet the minimum requirements for the program

Business teacher Sonya Kennedy serves as the ACCESS facilitator at Priceville High School, a small school in northern Alabama where students are experiencing the benefits of taking advanced courses. She said, "Two students took French I last year, and they are taking French II this year. This is something that would not have happened had it not been for ACCESS. That's what's so great about the program. Students are able to take courses that they wouldn't be able to otherwise." Beginning with the ninth grade class of 2009, all public high school students are required to complete at least one distance education course before graduation.


Earlene Patton, ACCESS Registration Coordinator with the Alabama Department of Education indicates that more participants enroll in web-based classes than the video-conferencing classes. ACCESS's web-based participants use a course management system called Desire2Learn, or D2L, which offers a variety of tools to facilitate learning. Every public high school in the state of Alabama is equipped with web-based labs designed to allow students to work individually at computers during the school day. These classes are asynchronous environments that "allow participants to log onto the class or discussion at any time, think about what is being discussed, and post their own responses when they wish" (Palloff & Pratt, 2007, p. 68). Students can view their instructors' lectures from any place and any time by logging onto the Internet, where lectures in the forms of video and audio are either broadcast live or archived for later retrieval. Meanwhile, teachers can post assignments, record grades, and consult with students from a distance.

There are several advantages to utilizing ACCESS's web-based courses:

* Students can log on when it is convenient for them to do so.

* Students have access to greater course selections.

* Students are exposed to technology that prepares them for college coursework and employment.

Unfortunately, there are several disadvantages to web-based courses:

* Some students are not independent learners.

* The lack of face-to-face interaction delays feedback between teacher and student.

* Some students might lack the technical skills needed to navigate through the coursework and to troubleshoot minor technical problems.

Videoconferencing overcomes the limitations of web-based learning "by bringing teacher and learners face-to-face virtually in real time, [which] enriches the distant learning process" (Martin, 2005, p. 398). These synchronous environments allow participants and instructors to communicate with each other "in different places at the same time" using technology such as satellite, compressed video, and fiber-optics systems" (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 10). There are several advantages to the video conferencing modality as a means of delivering distance learning courses:

* Videoconferencing creates a better sense of community than computer instructed course offers, since teachers and students are able to see and hear each other in real time.

* Students in underserved schools are connected to teachers and students in other areas, giving them access to courses not available in their home schools.

* Due to video and audio cues, teachers can immediately respond to questions raised by remote students.

The disadvantages of videoconferencing include:

* Remote students must coordinate their schedules with the host school's schedule for class meeting times.

* Remote students might experience feelings of isolation since there is a lack of "real" human interaction with other classmates.

* Technological difficulties can result in student/teacher frustration and confusion.

Simonson (2000) noted that "the key to success in a distance education classroom is not which technologies are used but how they are used what information is communicated through technology" (p. 29). Similarly, Clark (2001) contends that effective learning is not primarily contingent upon the media (face-to-face versus e-learning, in this case) but rather upon the instructional methods. Clark (2001) states, "The choice of media influences the important outcomes of student access, and the speed or cost of the delivery, but not the learning impact of the instruction that is delivered to the consumer" (p. 302).


Effective pedagogy is the key to overcoming issues related to making students feel connected to the learning experience regardless of if the online class is synchronous or asynchronous (Palloff & Pratt, 2007). Effective learning takes place when active students and teachers collaborate with each other in appropriate instructional environments. A factor that emerges as the primary difference between the distance education learning (fully online and blended) environments and traditional learning environments is student-teacher interaction. Students who feel more connected to their teachers and classmates are less likely to withdraw from class. ACCESS facilitator Sonya Kennedy explained,
   My job is to make sure students are on
   task daily. I check their grades once a
   week (usually every Friday) to make sure
   they are not getting behind. I communicate
   with their online teachers. We [facilitators]
   are also in the system so we can
   collaborate with online teachers to make
   sure their students are not getting

Throughout the state, more than 650 teachers are teaching distance learning classes to more than 40,000 students who are enrolled in credit and noncredit remedial classes. Teachers are hired, trained, and supervised at one of three sites located at the University of Alabama, Troy University, and Madison City Schools.

While technology is convenient, a controversial topic revolves around the enormous growth of distance education and the challenges associated with its instructional methods. In strengthening the teaching pedagogy component of distance education, Meyers (2008) suggests that teachers use transformative pedagogy. It includes:

* creating a safe environment by valuing the opinions of students;

* encouraging students to think about their experience, beliefs, and biases which can be accomplished through discussion postings;

* using teaching strategies that promote student participation and engagement such as through the asynchronous discussion boards;

* posing real-world problems that address inequalities, which can help expand their awareness of how societal forces impact people; and

* encouraging action-oriented solutions by motivating them to participate in a democracy and become agents for social change.

ACCESS offers 70 courses, 20 of which were designed by the University of Alabama. Most of the coursework for students takes place during a set school period and not at home. This hybrid model gives students the best of both worlds, offering face-to-face interaction and e-learning opportunities tailored for their own individual needs.


Management style can determine whether an organization's strategy of change will succeed or fail (Grant, 2008). Power is centralized in a top-down management. One of the key strengths of top-down change is evident when there are tight deadlines and multiple departments involved. Although input from others may be helpful, time constraints and practical concerns make broad-based input impossible. One of the weaknesses of top-down change is that these decisions are often limited in scope and not in the best interest of the organization because suggestions and feedback from lower management are not considered. Reduced productivity, broken lines of communication, and low employee motivation can result during top-down change. On the other hand, bottom-up management allows team members to participate in every step of the management process. One of the advantages of the bottom-up approach is that the planning process involves many people, which makes it flow significantly faster. One of the weaknesses of bottom-up project management is the lack of clarity and control.

ACCESS's organizational structure is very similar to a machine bureaucracy, where "important decisions are made at the strategic apex; day-to-day operations are controlled by managers and standardized procedures" (Bolman & Deal, 2008, p. 80). The governor of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Education (ALSDE) oversee K-12 public schools and manage the budget of the mostly state-funded ACCESS program. The Technology Initiatives office, an entity of the ALSDE, manages and coordinates day to-day aspects of the program. Staff members at the three state's regional offices hire, train, and supervise ACCESS teachers. Additionally, designed ACCESS facilitators are located at each of the state's public schools to serve as a liaison between students and teachers.


Assessment, accountability, and quality control measures are some of the key components in the operational tapestry of educational institutions. Multiple assessment tools quantify and qualify the effectiveness of curriculums, programs, and other services provided. Additionally, administrators collaborate with state, federal, and local governments in an effort to follow policies and laws that govern accountability. The International Society for Technology in Education (2010) evaluated the ACCESS program, and found that there are some areas of improvement.

* better technical preparation of students;

* engaged facilitators who supported students' needs;

* improved course materials;

* better two-way communication between students and teachers as well as between teachers and facilitators; and

* timely response to technology issues.

On a positive note, the International Society for Technology in Education report found that ACCESS had fulfilled its mission of providing equal access to students. Additionally, more than 75% of the ACCESS students reported their virtual school experience was equal or better than the traditional courses in the past. Graduation rates have increased, dropout rates have decreased, and the number of advanced placement takers has doubled as a result of the implementation of ACCESS and other state initiatives (Alabama Department of Education, 2010).


Alabama is home to one of the largest state virtual schools in the nation. Only Florida and North Carolina have larger virtual school enrollments (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp, 2009). How did Alabama's ACCESS leaders implement their program so quickly? Worthy of consideration is the diffusion of innovation theory which has four main elements: innovation, communication, time, and social system. As indicated by Rogers (1995), "Getting an idea adopted, even when it has many obvious advantages, is difficult. Many innovations require a lengthy period of many years from the time they become available to the time when they are widely adopted" (p. 1).

First of all, an innovation is anything that is "perceived" as being new to the potential adopter. Although educators in the state of Alabama had implemented technological innovations to improve academic achievement prior to ACCESS, such initiatives did not have the capability of delivering the state's goals. Classrooms throughout the state were wired with interactive videoconferencing and web-based learning innovations to expand course offerings to students, to provide alternative options to those seeking to retake courses needed to graduate, to alleviate schedule conflicts, and/or accelerate an academic program. Two characteristics of innovation are relevant to this case study including relative advantage and trialability. Despite the $10.3 million needed to fund the first phase ACCESS, the relative advantages of equal educational opportunities for every public high school student was greater than the hefty price tag, which enhanced the likelihood of diffusion. Another factor is trialability or the "degree to which an innovation might be experimented on a limited basis" (Rogers, 1995, p. 16). Implementation of ACCESS's program took place with only 24 schools during the pilot phase instead of equipping all 371 schools at the same time. This allowed ACCESS's task force to sample experimentally and to tweak technical glitches before full implementation.

Second, the information touting the promises of ACCESS was communicated via mass communications by starting with the governor holding media conferences that were broadcast on local television and radio stations and published in newspapers throughout the state.

The governor's messages and student testimonials resonated with stakeholders, teachers, students, and parents who then spread information to others via interpersonal communications.

Effective communication is circular in nature, meaning that feedback is required for an exchange of ideas, messages, and signals to take place. Noise is an enemy of communication and prevents the message from being perceived in the manner in which the sender had intended. Internal noise, possibly the most damaging to an organization's reputation, stems from the receivers' perceptions and attitudes toward the institution (i.e., "Is this program going to deliver on its program as ACCESS leaders proclaim?"). The credibility of the school system's message is not only measured by external evaluations and graduation rates, but also through testimonials communicated by students and other stakeholders.

Third, a combination of effective mass media and interpersonal communications hastened ACCESS's time from knowledge to implementation. However, continued program sustainability or confirmation will depend on how long the innovative measures are needed, how long funding will be available to support it, and if assessments from external evaluators continue to show improvements have been made in any areas of deficiencies. Symbolic approaches, such as making employees feel their personal input is important and meaningful, were advantageous for the governor's task force. Symbolic approaches include strategies that celebrate the smallest of accomplishments to increase the likelihood that positive behavior will be repeated in the future (Bolman & Deal, 2008).

Finally, the social system was influenced by a team of renowned experts in the field of distance education. Decisions are "made by relatively few individuals in a system who possess power, status, or technical expertise" (Rogers, 1995, p. 38). In the case study of ACCESS, several respected experts in the field of education participated in the governor's Task Force on Distance Education. Governor Riley was able to use his political influence to facilitate change outside the organization (i.e., getting the tangible resources needed for the initiative), the political realities that existed within the organization with satisfied ACCESS staffers, teachers, and students helped build his power base.


Nationwide, enrollment in state virtual schools is approximately 450,000 in 2010 (Watson et al., 2010). Thirty-nine states have state-led initiatives. For Alabama, ACCESS has opened doors to the state's underserved and "served as a catalyst to reverse statistics citing Alabama among the lowest?performing states for high school and college graduates" (ACCESS, 2010, p. 13). Remaining student-centered is of the upmost importance for these digital natives. Our very future depends on it.


ACCESS. (2010). A plan for continued excellence: 2011-2016. Montgomery, AL: Author.

Alabama State Department of Education. (2009). Alabama education report card. Montgomery, AL: Author.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership. (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Clark, R. E. (Ed.). (2001). Learning from media: Arguments, analysis, and evidence. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

Grant, R. M. (2008). Contemporary strategy analysis (6th ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

International Society for Technology in Education (2010). Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, & Students Statewide (ACCESS): Year four evaluation Report. Washington, DC: International Society for Technology in Education.

Martin, M. (2005). Seeing is believing: The role of video conferencing in distance learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(3), 397-405.

Meredith, S., & Newton, B. (2003). Models of eLearning: Technology promise vs. learner needs. The International Journal of Management Education, 3(3), 43-56.

Meyers, S. (2008). Using transformative pedagogy when teaching online. College Teaching, 56(4), 219-224.

Palloff, R. A. & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Prieger, J. E., & Hu, W. (2008). The broadband digital divide and the nexus of race, competition, and quality. Information Economics and Policy, 20, 150-167.

Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations. (4th ed.). New York, NY: The Free Press.

Simonson, M. (2000). Making decisions: The use of electronic technology in online classrooms New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 84(1), 29-34.

Smaldino, S. E., Lowther, D. L., & Russell, J. D. (2008). Instructional technology and media for learning (9th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Svinicki, M., & McKeachie, W. J. (2011). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin, B., & Rapp, C. (2010). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: An annual review of policy and practice. Evergreen, CO: Evergreen Education Group.

Sherry Stancil, Speech Communications Instructor, Calhoun Community College, Decatur, AL.

Telephone: (256) 713-4824.

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Author:Stancil, Sherry
Publication:Distance Learning
Geographic Code:1U6AL
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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