Gov. Steve Bullock brought his statewide education tour to the University of Montana on Friday, continuing his push to bolster early childhood learning and get more degrees into the hands of adults.
After stopping at UM-Western in Dillon and the early learning center in Hamilton, Bullock toured the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences at UM to discuss learning in Montana.
“I’d like to see us do more before a student gets to kindergarten – early childhood education,” Bullock said. “We need to recognize that kids learn in different ways these days.”
Bullock’s tour explored the growing role technology plays in education, and included a stop at the Montana Digital Academy – a statewide Internet tool that helps students make up course credits and access advanced classes.
“We’re really proud of what has happened in the past three years of our program,” Jason Neiffer, the academy’s curriculum director, told the governor. “Montana really did need a state virtual school to serve our many rural students, and for schools that can’t afford the diversity of programming they want.”
Neiffer said the Digital Academy’s popularity has led to its exponential growth over the past three years. The program saw 8,000 enrollments last year and included what Neiffer described as a diverse base of students.
“We’re the sixth-largest state virtual school per capita in the U.S., and the 12th largest overall,” he said. “We’re serving students on a modest budget because we were never intended to serve this many students in our original budget figures.”
Throughout his tour, Bullock stressed the link between state education and economic development, saying the two issues go hand in hand.
It was a similar message delivered in his State of the State address in January, in which he said the state must work to prepare its students, from kindergarten through college, for a 21st century economy.
UM College of Education Dean Roberta Evans and associate professor Martin Horejsi agreed, saying technology has opened the doors to new ways of learning and created new opportunities for teachers and students in Montana.
“It comes down to what you want to do as opposed to what you have available,” Horejsi said. “That’s where the digital side makes a big difference. Here at UM, we’re trying to free up the dreams of our students so they can teach how they want and in ways best suited to their environment.”
Bullock said roughly 40 percent of Montana adults have college degrees. It’s a figure he wants to build on.
“I want to get us to 60 percent of our adults having degrees,” he said. “When we get to that stage, we’ll have better job opportunities. The burden of that doesn’t just fall on our universities. It runs all the way through the education process.”