Montana Digital Academy Opening Doors for Students

Finding ways to help students who live in rural areas get the same education as those in urban areas has been a struggle for many states and institutions. In recent years, this has meant investments from private, public and nonprofit sectors alike, such as a $1.9 million grant from the nonprofit Education Design Lab to design pilot programs for rural schools, or distance learning grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Montana, where a majority of school districts are in rural areas, the state Legislature established the Montana Digital Academy (MTDA) in 2009 to offer supplemental online courses for K-12 students across the state. Thirteen years later, as state education systems are navigating their way out of remote learning and the COVID-19 pandemic, the MDTA supplemental option is thriving, according to a case study of the academy by the open source learning platform Open LMS.

Through the legislation passed in 2009, the MTDA provides courses primarily for grades 5-12, either through an online credit-recovery program, whereby students can regain credits for a class they failed in person, or through what MTDA Executive Director Jason Neiffer called “original” credits. In an interview with Government Technology, Neiffer said the credit-recovery aspect of the MTDA has declined since the onset of the pandemic, but the 100 “original credit” courses — which aren’t available in physical classrooms — have seen growing demand. And while the MTDA wasn’t intended to have a primary role in providing remote instruction, Neiffer said it supported many districts in that area too, in one example by covering for a teacher who abruptly quit midway through the school year.

“[Students] appreciate the organization of the courses. They appreciate the teacher role in the course, and they felt like it was a good balance between being independent and getting help when they need it,” he said. “It really does build independent learning skills. It provides a real opportunity, I think, to better organize their learning and be more of an agent of the day-to-day process of learning and gaining knowledge and skills.”


According to the case study, the online platform allowed some Montana school districts to increase the number of courses they offer students by around 50 percent. Some of these include Advanced Placement courses, astronomy, oceanography, dual-credit classes and core classes such as U.S. history and English, Neiffer said. MTDA is also building CTE courses to be added in the near future.

Neiffer said MTDA conducts regular surveys with students, and 87 percent of respondents have expressed satisfaction since the pandemic started — higher than in pre-COVID surveys. He said the capacity to accommodate distance learning as well as overall affordability for school districts were both critical in making that the case.

Neiffer said that MTDA, once launched, sought to rebuff popular wisdom at the time that a student couldn’t get a good education in a digital space. He said they took several years to establish the program before its full launch. With the majority of the state’s population in rural areas — some elementary schools are still one-room buildings, he said — the need for a quality platform was imperative.

“It wasn’t good enough for us for students to just receive a passing grade. We want the students to feel very prepared to go into the next class in the sequence,” Neiffer said.

While MTDA initially launched in partnership with a different vendor, it later sought grant funding through the University of Montana and partnered with Open LMS, a subsidiary of Learning Technologies Group, to rebuild its platform into what is being used today.

“You can do some pretty extraordinary things [with Open LMS] to be able to build the environment you want based on whatever structure that you need,” Neiffer said. “And not only did we see an increase in the success rate of our program, we also saw an increase in the student satisfaction of the program.”

Neiffer said he has noticed decreased interest in credit recovery in general since the pandemic, in part because many schools adopted more flexible options and schedules to accommodate students. But those raised expectations led MTDA to add more supports to its program, notably including what Neiffer calls an “accordion design,” in which there is more or less personalization depending on a student’s need.

The case study said the Open LMS platform assigns an instructor to each course, in addition to the school’s on-site support person, and allows teachers to automate parts of their course to personalize a student’s experience with it. If a student struggles on a quiz or test, an email will automatically be sent with recommendations on how to improve. Touting the efficacy of this function, the case study said nearly 90 percent of students taking an AP class through MTDA passed their tests, a higher rate than state and national averages.

“It’s the mechanism to provide access to courses and learning that normally would be closed to students in remote or underfunded districts,” he said. “It’s hard to get faculty when you don’t have budget and you don’t have communities. So [it’s good] being able to not just teach oceanography, but AP courses to students that normally would just have no opportunity to see this.”

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