After $6 million, Idaho’s online higher ed program moves closer to launch

(UPDATED, 3:01 p.m., to clarify the State Board’s projections on ongoing program costs.)

This fall, two students at each Idaho college will register for their fall classes on a new statewide online portal — and the state will pick up the costs.

The 16-student pilot represents a “stress test” for Online Idaho, a new effort to offer college courses beyond the state’s college campuses. It’s also a baby step of a milestone, millions of dollars into the State Board of Education project.

The State Board has put more than $6 million into Online Idaho so far, all from federal coronavirus aid. A few years down the road, when the federal aid runs out, ongoing annual costs could pencil out at $3 million a year — although the State Board expects to cover this cost through savings on other contracts.

And so far, only one student has registered through Online Idaho.

State Board officials say they are consciously avoiding enrollment goals, for now. Instead, they say they are trying to build a positive experience, where students can find the courses they need. By definition, that’s a qualitative goal.

“But qualitative is what keeps our students coming back to our institutions,” said Jonathan Lashley, the board’s associate chief academic officer.

But State Board staffers acknowledge that, at some point, the board’s appointees will want to see some quantifiable signs of enrollment growth.

“The board has to be interested in the numbers, eventually,” Chief Academic Officer TJ Bliss said.

A program that predates the pandemic

Policymakers started talking about an Online Idaho-type concept in 2017, long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced higher education to go virtual.

Five years ago, then-Gov. Butch Otter assembled a higher education task force, to look at ways to encourage more Idahoans to complete college. One recommendation: a statewide digital campus to serve “place-bound or time-bound” students, such as rural residents or adults hoping to juggle a job and coursework.

Then came 2020. A few months into the pandemic, the state agreed to use federal coronavirus aid to start up what was then known as Idaho Online, starting with a $4 million installment. Building off of an inventory of existing online programs at the state’s two- and four-year colleges, the goal was to figure out how to share out those classes statewide.

That might sound straightforward, but it isn’t easy, or cheap. Much of the federal money went into pursuing a shared learning management system, a network to share and administer online coursework. The state has adopted Canvas, an industry leader in the LMS field. Seven of Idaho’s eight colleges and universities are moving onto Canvas, and the one holdout, Idaho State University, is considering it.

While software has been a big expense in the Online Idaho rollout, the pandemic has also provided the State Board with an education in how virtual college should work.

Lessons in online learning

The pandemic didn’t just prod the State Board to launch the online portal — while providing an infusion of federal money that the state needed to spend in education.

The pandemic also forced educators and students alike to look more closely at the potential and pitfalls of online learning.

As professors moved classes online, out of necessity, they also took lessons from colleagues who had experience and skills in a virtual setting. There came a growing appreciation that effective online learning means a lot more than simply moving a class to Zoom.

“Online education is a craft,” Bliss said. “There are ways to do it well and there are ways to do it really poorly.”

Meanwhile, policymakers got a better idea of what students wanted in terms of online college education. Students might not want all of their classes online, but they might want the option of working an online class into their schedule. And much like instructors need professional development as they move into online teaching, students sometimes need help to become online-ready, Lashley said.

And while the State Board has been trying to build the infrastructure for Online Idaho, Lashley has also spent a lot of his time hosting informal chats with staffers and students, to better understand how to build the program itself.

Who Online Idaho might serve

Fully built, the platform could serve a variety of student groups.

  • Online Idaho could provide a platform for the state’s online cybersecurity major — a shared program across the higher education system.
  • Online Idaho could provide the link that allows a student at one college or university to take a class from another college or university. This could make it easier for students to get the general education credits they need, staying on track for graduation. And the one student who has registered through Online Idaho was a North Idaho College student looking to take a class and lab through the University of Idaho — an online lab unavailable through NIC.
  • And Online Idaho could provide the pathway for adult students and rural students to get back into college. That’s a complicated undertaking. Logistically, it’s easier to serve college students who are already registered in the system, as opposed to signing up new students from rural Idaho. And there isn’t much value to a student simply signing up for a random class, without the support that could put that student on a path to a degree. “It’s so easy for that student to get lost in the mix,” Lashley said.

A gradual rollout

The Online Idaho rollout has been deliberately slow.

The State Board hasn’t advertised the service, focusing instead on training advisers about how the course exchange could help students.

“As expected, we have limited registrations so far because we have limited our promotion of the service,” Lashley said. “This will evolve during the academic year now that implementation is complete.”

At a State Board presentation in June, board members dug into the ongoing cost projections — a possible $3 million-a-year bill, driven largely by the ongoing cost of Canvas subscriptions. (The State Board says this budget should be a wash, since the statewide Canvas contract will replace $3 million a year in school-by-school LMS contracts.)

Board member David Hill took a long view of the path to enrollment growth. Hill said he wants to see students within the system, crossing boundaries to take classes on other campuses. Then he’ll want to see new students coming in from outside the traditional campus structure. “(That’s) the real objective here,” he said.

When board member Cally Roach asked Lashley for a forecast on how many students it will take to pay for the program — and when Idaho will get there — Lashley didn’t make a prediction.

Instead, he said it will be challenging to get to full-scale course sharing across eight campuses. What Idaho needs to do first is figure out which students will benefit the most from the online portal, and which students will benefit first.

“We really have yet to have that clear, specific state strategy,” he said.

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public Television; and “Idaho Matters” on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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