In time for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt wants to make schools a core element in his plan to transform Utah into the nation’s first “digital state.”

A new Utah law aims to put all state services online within three years.

The Digital State Act specifies several educational initiatives, including a push for greater access to distance learning and improved communication between schools and homes.

According to legislative documents, Utah wants to ensure the availability of online services such as school registration, progress reporting, and videoconferencing for all its schools. These services would help “promote increased connectivity and interaction between teachers, students, and parents.”

Under the act, public schools would be expected to make “reasonable progress” toward fostering eMail communication among parents, teachers, and principals by 2002. The state’s plan also calls for parents to have access to lesson plans and student records online.

According to school legislative chief Doug Bates, the state’s Office of Education hasn’t been given a directive yet on public school requirements under the act. But many districts and schools in the state already provide parents with online access to teachers and student information, Bates said, so the act is only likely to bolster those existing initiatives.

The Digital State Act also aims to improve the digital infrastructure at schools, allowing for the delivery of integrated voice, video, and data into both schools and homes. The act calls for ongoing funding in this area as part of its goal to provide fully interactive educational content over the internet.

Through initiatives such as the Utah Electronic High School, the law is intended to advance the broader goal of providing distance learning opportunities to students in remote areas and to those otherwise unable to attend school.

The act additionally seeks to establish the equivalent of a community college on the internet that is accessible to all homes and students in the state.

At the same time, the Digital State Act addresses statewide high-speed internet access, economic development, and the availability of all state services online.

Olympic showcase

Not coincidentally, Utah hosts the Winter Olympics in 2002 and hopes to use the event as a showcase for the state’s growing technology sector.

“It’s really just an acknowledgment of where we think the economy is going,” said Gov. Leavitt upon signing the act, which he originally outlined during his January state of the state address. “We think this makes us an attractive place.”

While some states already offer limited services online, Utah has now emerged as one of the most aggressive both in terms of the scope of services to be offered and in establishing a firm target date for all state agencies, Utah officials said.

Utah residents, who are already able to obtain hunting licenses and file tax returns online, will eventually be able to use the internet for everything from applying for drivers licenses, unemployment, and welfare benefits to securing permits and making payments to the state.

Utah is well-suited to become a test case for providing digital services. According to the governor’s office, more than 50 percent of the state’s households have computers, and almost three-fourths of its residents have access to computers either at home, school, or work.

On the other hand, Utah’s geography and population patterns present problems in wiring the entire populace. A task force will be formed to determine the best solution for connecting residents in remote areas who do not currently have direct dial-up access to the internet.

Utah’s drive to put all state services online follows its 1995 adoption of the Digital Signatures Act, which created the first legal system in the world to enable electronic transactions through digital signatures. The law allowed Utah to become the first state in the nation to sell state bonds online.

The signatures act could eventually lead to online voting in Utah as well, officials said.

Utah State Office of Education

Digital State Briefing Paper