The Maryland Board of Education, hoping to make the state a national leader in online instruction, plans to launch a statewide virtual classroom next year that would allow parolees, the hospital-bound, and a variety of other students to take courses over the internet and apply the credits toward a high school degree.

State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced the initiative Oct. 25, spurred by a report she commissioned showing that although eight of the state’s 24 school systems offer some type of online instruction, all of them favor a state-run program.

Under the plan, the online courses would be free to users and would offer a web component for educators working toward certification or professional development. The plan is to offer online courses in an array of disciplines, from math and science to English, writing, and foreign languages. Grasmick said she would establish a panel of technology experts to develop a plan for an internet portal that could deliver the web courses. The panel also will seek grants and state funds to pay for the courses, which will cost between $200 and $400 per person to provide.

The goal would be to reach a variety of students—home-schoolers, those who have trouble learning in classrooms, those who hold part-time jobs, or those who want to take advanced placement or college credit courses not offered in their schools.

Among the questions that need answers are how the state and local school systems will divide the costs of providing the online instruction and how the state will train teachers selected to do the electronic teaching.

State education officials also must decide what the standards will be for the courses and how to give credit for them.

State board members unanimously endorsed the proposal, though some said they fear the online program would be inaccessible to low-income and minority students.

Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast countered that the opposite would be true: The state plan would ensure that students could access online programs from computers in schools and libraries. Students whose families don’t own computers could borrow state-provided laptops, he said.