Looking to improve the level of rigor in high school classrooms and better prepare students for the realities of the modern workforce, Michigan lawmakers have approved a bill that requires every student in the state to take part in some form of online instruction before they graduate.

Believed to be the first of its kind in the country, the requirement–part of a larger proposal designed to hold high schools across the state to a higher standard of learning–clears the way for other states to consider online competency as a prerequisite to graduation.

As news of the bill’s passage circulated late last week, advocates of educational technology said the measure underscores the growing importance of virtual learning in schools–not only in Michigan, but nationwide.

"Online learning," wrote Susan Patrick, executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), in an eMail message to eSchool News, "levels the playing field by giving kids access to more courses and opportunities to take rigorous curriculum."

Patrick, who headed of the federal Office of Educational Technology before joining NACOL, added: "Michigan’s follow-through on the commitment to 21st-century learning is an important first step in our nation."

Roundly endorsed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who has made education reform a central pillar of her political agenda, the larger bill is intended to ratchet up high school graduation requirements across the state. The move would give Michigan, once criticized for its lackluster curriculum requirements, one of the toughest paths to graduation in the nation.

"When we hold our kids to high standards, they will do great things," said Granholm in response to the legislature’s approval of the bill March 30. "This new curriculum will help give Michigan the best-educated workforce in the nation and bring new jobs and new investment to our state." Buttressed by a national push for widespread high-school reform, Michigan lawmakers had been considering proposals that would make earning a diploma more difficult. The state’s students now will be required to take four credits of math and English; three credits of science and social studies; two credits of a foreign language; one credit of physical education and health; one credit of visual or performing arts; and one online learning "experience."

Though there remains some room for debate over what constitutes an online "experience," as opposed to a full credit or actual course, advocates of educational technology say the bill likely will pave the way for other states to consider the impact of online learning in schools more seriously.

"Offering online courses is an important first step to preparing students for success in a global economy," wrote Patrick. "We need to open the pipeline of curriculum and instructional offerings to include online courses to prepare students to go to college."

There already is strong support for online instruction in Michigan. At the Michigan Virtual University, enrollment in its Michigan Virtual High School program has grown from 100 students in 1999, the program’s first year, to 5,959 students during the 2004-05 school year, according to the Detroit Free Press.

 

The state’s online learning proposal is "probably one of the most forward-thinking educational strategies I’ve seen in a long time," said Jamey Fitzpatrick, president of the nonprofit Michigan Virtual University, in an interview with eSchool News in February. Fitzpatrick added, "It’s very exciting to see our policy makers engaged in the debate." (See story: Mich. floats online learning requirement.)

Across the board, Michigan lawmakers voiced encouragement for the bill and its ramifications for the future.

"This plan makes our state a national leader in ensuring young people graduate with the skills they need to succeed in today’s work force," Senate Education Committee Chairman Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, said in a statement. "Michigan has for too long lagged behind other states in what’s expected of high school graduates."

Added NACOL’s Patrick: "Online learning is opening doors, especially to low-income, rural, and minority students who may not be tracked into these programs–and they can find courses that interest and challenge them through virtual schools to prepare them for college and for lifelong learning in a digital world."

All of the requirements in the new legislation reportedly will be in place for incoming eighth-graders this fall.

Links:

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm
http://www.michigan.gov/gov/

Michigan Department of Education
http://www.michigan.gov/mde

North American Council for Online Learning
http://www.nacol.org