Subscribe for 17¢ / day

By now, parents are accustomed to the sight of their kids parked at the computer, uploading YouTube videos, plugging rounds into their enemies in virtual war games, and Skype-dialing friends across the country.

But what if they fired up their Mac or Dell to master the quadratic equation, brush up on the conjugation of Spanish verbs or learn the atomic mass of beryllium?

And what if it meant they didn't have to set one foot in school?

That's not the distant future. That's next year, and it's coming to a broadband connection near you.

The Montana Digital Academy is taking education - everything from gym class to advanced physics - online.

"There's no hiding in the back of the class" in this virtual school, said Robert Currie, director of the MDA, which is housed at the University of Montana.

Nor is there a need to hide. This fall, thousands of Montana students will get comfy in their own chairs in their own homes to do their learning whenever they want.

Algebra at 8 p.m., anyone?


All across the country, the classroom is getting to be just a few keystrokes away.

Most other states have already developed online academies, and Montana was behind the curve before the 2009 Legislature acted.

That year, Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed the law that created Montana's own online school system.

Funded by $2 million in federal stimulus money, the academy has been a work in progress since.

This fall, it's going live.

Currie, who developed and oversaw a similar effort in Michigan before taking this job, said the MDA will be fully functioning, with a menu of 45 online courses.

Right now, he said, the biggest challenges are finishing the course content and training teachers in the technique of online education.

"We're in the process of securing and building the content for all this," said Currie, a lifelong educator who watched the Michigan program blossom from 5,000 student to 20,000 when he left last year. "Some of this will be built by us, and a major portion by other providers."

The MDA has also worked closely with the state Office of Public Instruction to be sure that all course content is up to state standards, he said.

The MDA is taking applications from teachers all across the state. Any are welcome to apply as long as they have state certification.

This summer, those teachers will get training specific to the programs, and the technological tools needed to conduct virtual classrooms.

The MDA, too, is busy getting the principals and superintendents of Montana's 430 school districts involved and informed about how to enroll interested students, monitor student progress and set aside school resources for online learning.

Count MCPS superintendent Alex Apostle an enthusiastic supporter.

"This will be," said Apostle, who has spearheaded the "21st century schools" concept in development at MCPS, "something that is part of the way we do business."

MCPS is the first school district in the state to move toward the "21st century schools" concept, which will radically alter not just the structure of the school day, but the structure of classrooms and teaching concepts from kindergarten to 12th grade.

The digital academy will be but one aspect of that vision.

"This will be an important component of a quality school district," he said. "We will be continuing to offer more avenues to broaden the educational experience."


This is no stay-at-home program.

Your child will still be showering, eating Cheerios, then catching the school bus.

What will change is that those courses he or she signs up for can be taken at home or school at anytime, and any place where there is broadband.

Here's how it will work.

Let's take an online geometry course.

The geometry teacher may be located in Wibaux or Bozeman or Billings or right here in Missoula.

Logging on, students across the state will be able to read textbooks and get interactive lessons in everything from calculating the area of a circle to the multiple uses of pi.

The teacher may have uploaded audio lectures, or videos to watch, which the student can repeat endlessly.

Homework is given online, too, and is completed and filed electronically.

If the student has a question, he or she can

e-mail it or broadcast it to the teacher, again, at any time of the day. The teacher will also keep "office hours" for real-time questions and feedback.

The work can be done either at home or at school, the lessons completed not at the student's own pace, but by the deadlines, and the quality standards, imposed by the teacher.

In the parlance of education, this is "asynchronous learning."

And if parents and students think it will be easier or more relaxed than a traditional class, they'd best think again, said Currie.

"There's a high degree of rigor in these course," he said.

And yet there are numerous advantages to such learning.

First is that shy students won't feel nervous about asking questions. Second, students can, unlike in a traditional classroom, listen to lectures or lessons over and over. And third, teachers can more closely and accurately monitor each student's comprehension of the material - and take appropriate action.

"One of the keys in asynchronous learning is that there is a lot of communication between the teacher and the student," Currie said. "The beauty is that the teacher of an online course can literally be sure that all the students answer a question."

For its first year, the curriculum is limited to high school classes. Eventually, the MDA hopes to have hundreds of classes for all of Montana's K-12 students.

It is also open to home-school students and those at private schools because parents of those students still pay education taxes.


Next month, the MDA will get a trial run in Missoula.

Working with the MCPS, Currie and others will test the systems and software to take teaching and learning online.

It will let both the district and the MDA tweak the entire system.

Apostle said that trial - and indeed, the MDA's first years - will expose what works and what needs to be fixed in the overall effort.

"Like any new program," he said, "you're going to have your bumps in the road. But overall, when you offer kids the opportunities to be successful in school, it's going to be a big plus."

The MDA has long been a vision for Montana's educators and the educational establishment. The bill that created it was written by and shepherded through the Legislature by Rep. Wanda Grinde, D-Billings, who is also a teacher and member of the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers union.

The MEA-MFT was on board from the beginning, said union president Eric Feaver.

In a way, the MDA will further the state goal of providing an equal and quality public education for all of Montana's students, he said. A child who in a rural area who may not have the same educational opportunities as others could suddenly find himself or herself being taught by one of the state's best teachers, imparting cutting-edge subject matter.

"We think the Digital Academy is how it ought to be for everybody," he said.

A teacher who participates will receive a bump in salary, not unlike one who becomes a tennis coach or the director of a swing choir.

Before the MDA became a reality, said Feaver, many districts were starting to develop their own online program - in some cases, shopping for materials and teachers out of state.

The statewide effort means all the participating teachers, and therefore almost all of the money budged for the program, will stay in the state.

"One of the compelling reasons we wanted this is that all the dollars that go to the academy stay in Montana," he said. "We are using our resources with our educators, and for our children."

Originally, the MDA's supporters sought

$4 million in state money. The Legislature ended up budgeting half that - all of it federal stimulus money.

That money will run out after the 2010-11 school year, and so continuing the program without charging parents directly will require another state outlay.

Feaver said the MEA-MFT will lobby state lawmakers passionately.

"Yes, we will be going back to the Legislature," he said. "And we're preparing now to make our plea."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at


You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.