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Lawmaker wants a system for evaluating online courses

A state lawmaker wants to create an institute that would recommend whether online courses offered by private companies meet state standards before public schools decide whether to use them.

Rep. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican, said quality digital curriculum is essential to Arizonans from all backgrounds being able to succeed at an international level when they get out of school.

“These kids need to have a world-class education,” Crandall said. “But they can also live in great areas in rural Arizona. They’ll get the best of both worlds.”

Crandall helped author H2720, which would modify IDEAL, an existing partnership between the state Department of Education and Arizona State University that provides online services for teachers, including educational videos and practice tests. It would require the partnership to evaluate commercially available online courses to see if they meet standards set by the State Board of Education.

The institute would evaluate courses based on whether they increase academic performance, are grade level appropriate, are easy to use and are transferable for credit, among other criteria.

The bill passed the full House March 11 by a vote of 50-8, sending it to the Senate.

Ted Kraver, chairman of eLearning System for Arizona Teachers and Students, a group that advocates for online learning, said that an institute evaluating online curriculum is necessary to improve Arizona’s standing when it comes to test scores.

“The only way we’re going to affect academic performance is to bring technology in,” Kraver said. “If we can pull this off, the rest of it falls in to line quickly.”

Jeff Sawner, vice president of Educational Options, a private company that offers online educational materials, said he supports the concept but has issues with the bill’s language. According to Sawner, Educational Options is already accredited by two major institutions and shouldn’t have to go through another accreditation process.

“The idea of having this information readily available makes good sense to me,” Sawner said. “But they should say, ‘If someone has already been accredited, we’ll take their word for it.’”

Crandall said that companies offering courses would pay a fee to be evaluated by the institute, although there’s currently no language in the bill specifying this. The ultimate objective, he said, is creating a comprehensive list to aid both teachers and parents.

“Our goal, several years out, is that an Arizona parent could go to a database and pick out of a list of, say, Algebra 1 courses and know that they’ve been accredited by the state,” he said.

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