We often call it a “distance learning” program, but it’s proving to be a lot more than that. In fact, the Alabama ed-tech initiative known as ACCESS–for Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide–has become a catalyst for educational progress well beyond the underserved rural schools and students it was primarily designed to help.

In a state where many schools and school districts are far apart geographically and cannot afford on their own to match the broader course offerings of more substantial systems, ACCESS has purposefully tapped the internet and interactive videoconferencing, along with hundreds of enthusiastic and creative teachers, to deliver expanded, high-quality instruction to students at rural high schools across the state.

As you might expect, a principal goal has been to increase educational equity–regardless of a school’s location or resources. Specifically, ACCESS takes aim at the fact that many remote schools lack sufficient enrollments and budgets to support the more extensive curricula of larger and more affluent schools. That, in turn, can deprive many capable students of the educational opportunities they deserve, as well as impede economic development statewide.

Those issues have been complicated, moreover, by Alabama’s two-tiered system of high school instruction. According to state policy, students can earn “regular” diplomas through a basic set of course offerings or, by taking higher-level courses, can qualify for diplomas “with advanced academic endorsements.”

Advanced diplomas have become critical for many students, especially those aspiring to higher education and professional careers. Historically, however, many Alabama high schools have not had the resources to offer the requisite

courses. The result is that many of our students have not had equal access to educational opportunities needed for the successful completion of a rigorous high school curriculum.

Overcoming such inequities in Alabama has been a major focus of ACCESS from the start. But a special benefit of the program that we did not fully anticipate is that the spread of “connectivity” to rural schools through distance learning has transformed the thinking of classroom teachers throughout the state, including those in some of our more affluent high schools.

For one thing, kids in rural high schools have been able to take courses through ACCESS that otherwise would not have been available to them. A remote high school with only five students interested in studying German, for example, can hardly afford to hire a full-time German teacher. But distance learning enables one teacher to engage dozens of students in many schools all at once.

At the same time, teachers we have brought on board and trained to deliver instruction through ACCESS have become fascinated by the potential of connectivity to improve what they’re doing in their own classrooms. Indeed, the teachers tell us that their experiences with ACCESS have prompted them to change how they deliver material to students in their own schools.

One such teacher said she realized that in her first-period class, where she was offering an online ACCESS course, students were being exposed to all sorts of ed-tech opportunities that local students in her second-period room were not. Other teachers in the school noticed similar things, and eventually they encouraged district officials to purchase interactive whiteboards for every classroom.

What we are seeing, in other words, is that ACCESS is setting the stage for widespread adoption of an educational model that combines the best of traditional instruction with the great practical value and excitement that can be generated by distance learning in the internet age. Alabama’s governor, Bob Riley, has called for an expansion of ACCESS so that, by 2010, every high school in the state–currently 407–will feature an up-to-date classroom equipped for distance learning.

Begun two and a half years ago at the governor’s urging, ACCESS so far has provided grants of $85,000 each to 170 Alabama high schools. The grants have been used to purchase a range of e-learning equipment–including tablet computers, interactive whiteboards, digital cameras and projectors, monitors, wireless routers, and videoconferencing systems.

We’ve found that students quickly become enthralled with ACCESS and distance learning. In the past, many students in rural areas have not had sufficient self-confidence to leave their communities after high school or to go on to college. But as word has spread about our program, such students have come to realize that they are just as good and just as smart as kids in affluent communities. So they are opening their eyes and saying things like, “Why can’t I go on to one of the major universities? I know I can compete and do well.”

Martha Rizzuto, superintendent of Alabama’s Tarrant City School System, credits ACCESS with helping her district go “from good to great.” Students there have become more motivated and more engaged academically, she says, and their grades have improved. She adds that ACCESS has “contributed to our decision to put our technology on a fast track,” and that the district is moving toward a 1-to-1 computing initiative.

Meanwhile, our experience throughout the state shows tremendous grassroots support for the program. Once it goes into a school, it just explodes. The state grants help, of course, because they make the schools want to become involved. And as soon as they do, the students quickly get caught up in it.

Overseen by the Alabama Department of Education, ACCESS has strong partnerships with the governor’s office, the Alabama Supercomputer Authority, Alabama Public Television, and institutions of higher education. With state appropriations totaling nearly $41 million for its first three years, the program has trained some 500 teachers–at least one in every county in the state. Distance learning courses include the major core-content areas (English, social studies, math, and science), as well as Advanced Placement (AP) classes and remedial instruction.

A key aspect of ACCESS is that participating schools must show that they are supporting the students who take part. That is, the schools are required to have an adult facilitator, such as a teacher or education aide, who has gone through ACCESS training and knows how to work with the students.

Some of the teachers provide online or other interactive instruction to students in various locations during the regular school day, while others teach after hours. State appropriations cover compensation for instructors, and the program includes three regional support centers that hire, train, evaluate, and support the teachers and facilitators. The centers employ an average of five full-time staff members, plus some part-timers.

When ACCESS got under way, we held regional meetings with school counselors from all over the state. And we talked about the kinds of students who tend to do well in an online environment, as opposed to those for whom a traditional learning environment might be more appropriate. We’re confident that those discussions helped lay important groundwork for our success to date.

Although ACCESS has yet to complete its third year, we can already report some encouraging results. Three years before the program began, for example, Alabama administered, on average, only 99 Advanced Placement

exams for every 1,000 high-school juniors and seniors, and the state ranked 14th among 16 southern states in AP offerings. Today we are offering 10 AP courses, with enrollments of about 720 students.

In all, we’ve served nearly 13,700 students this school year, including 5,000 students who’ve received remedial instruction and supplemental resources. We’re delivering 50 courses over the internet and 23 courses through videoconferencing.

Initially, we really did not know how the program would unfold–or that it would lead to a transformational model that goes beyond the usual approach to virtual schooling. When we started out in 2003–with 24 pilot schools–we basically said to their people: “Here’s the plan and here’s the money. Go buy what you think you need and let’s see what works.”

Now what we have is an exciting blend of some of the best features of distance learning, online programs, videoconferencing, personalized instruction, and traditional education. Thousands of Alabama students, not to mention the state’s future, all stand to benefit.

Melinda Maddox is director of technology initiatives for the Alabama Department of Education. Martha Donaldson is program administrator for ACCESS, Alabama’s distance learning program.