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  • Classes Without Walls:

    ACCESS Distance Learning Works for Alabama

  • Alabama Policy Institute

    The Alabama Policy Institute (API) is an independent, non- profit research and education organization that is issue-centered and solution-oriented. We provide in-depth research and analysis of Alabama’s public policy issues to impact policy decisions and deepen Alabama citizens’ understanding of, and appreciation for, sound economic, social, and governing principles.

    Since 1989, API has been on the front lines of critical public debates, helping Alabama citizens, lawmakers, and business leaders better understand and apply principles that maximize individual freedom, limit government interference, and encourage personal responsibility. API is the largest free- market, solution-based policy research center in Alabama.

    For additional copies, please contact:

    Alabama Policy Institute 402 Office Park Drive, Suite 300 Birmingham, AL 35223 P: 205.870.9900 F: 205.870.4407


    Printed 2012 by The Alabama Policy Institute

    Birmingham, Alabama

    Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the Alabama Policy Institute is properly cited.

    Classes Without Walls:

    ACCESS Distance Learning Works for Alabama

  • Alabama Policy Institute



    The Challenge of Distance Learning in Alabama 1

    ACCESS: Alabama’s Distance Learning Solution 1

    ACCESS Technology 2

    ACCESS Utilization in Alabama 3

    Measuring the Success of ACCESS 5

    Ongoing Challenges Facing ACCESS 6

    Conclusion 9

    Appendix A: Web-Based Course Offerings for ACCESS Distance Learning, 2011-2012 11

    Appendix B: Most Commonly Taken ACCESS Distance Learning Courses, by Population Area, 2010-11 15

  • Classes Without Walls: ACCESS Distance Learning Works for Alabama

    Alabama Policy Institute

  • Classes Without Walls: ACCESS Distance Learning Works for Alabama 1


    The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) has continually faced the challenge of providing high school students in rural areas with an adequate education designed to equip them for the rigors of college and the global workforce. In 2003, almost 32 percent of Alabama’s public school students attended rural schools, many of which were small and in impoverished areas. Their diminished budgets and distance from urban areas often prevented these schools from being able to attract and ultimately hire teachers needed to expand course offerings or provide other specialized training. In the same way, limited education funding hindered access to technological resources that students could otherwise have used to improve their workforce skills.1

    Many of these schools were also unable to provide a comprehensive curriculum that could offer the courses necessary for an advanced high school diploma. In 2003—before the implementation of Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, & Students Statewide (ACCESS)—99 Advanced Placement (AP) exams were given in Alabama for every 1,000 juniors and seniors, the third lowest rate in the South.2

    Alabama looked to other states and concluded that distance learning offerings could be part of the solution to many of these problems. In short, distance learning creates a learning environment by incorporating technology and internet access into educational offerings, in and out of the traditional classroom setting. These courses typically include web-based classes, interactive video conferencing (IVC), or a blend of both.

    Prior to the deployment of ACCESS, Alabama already had a dozen distance learning initiatives across the state, but most were either online classroom resources, technology training sites for teachers and administrators, or fixed sites for video conferencing. Only two—the Alabama Online

    1 Governor’s Task Force on Distance Learning, State of Alabama, A Plan for Distance Learning, Nov. 1, 2004. http://

    2 Id.

    High School, and the Southeast Alabama Technology Network—were bona fide, student-centered distance learning programs. These resources were not interconnected or centrally coordinated, nor did they operate under a standardized format.3


    Governor Bob Riley’s Task Force on Distance Learning addressed these problems with the creation of ACCESS in 2004. By blending traditional classroom teaching with the Internet and videoconferencing technology, ACCESS gives students, particularly those in underserved districts, academic opportunities they would not have otherwise. ACCESS allows students to take AP courses, earn advanced diplomas, learn foreign languages, and take electives that their local school does not offer. Because research conducted in other states has shown that courses using a blend of web-based and IVC platforms have the potential to be the most effective form of distance learning, ACCESS offers courses incorporating both.4

    The program, which is supervised and coordinated from Montgomery, has three regional support centers to hire, train, evaluate, and support ACCESS teachers. The centers for the northern, central, and southern thirds of the state are located in Madison, Tuscaloosa, and Troy, respectively. Teachers are also able to use the program to receive professional development without leaving their school.5

    The initial ACCESS program for the 2005-06 fiscal year cost taxpayers approximately $10.3 million, with most of these funds going to provide the necessary technical equipment and coursework for up to 6,000 students in

    3 Id. 4 International Society for Technology in Education,

    External Evaluation of the Alabama ACCESS Initiative: Phase 3 Report, Mar. 1, 2007. http://accessdl.

    5 ACCESS Distance Learning, Alabama State Department of Education, ACCESS Distance Learning Support Center Regions. (last visited Dec. 19, 2011).

  • 2 Classes Without Walls: ACCESS Distance Learning Works for Alabama

    Alabama Policy Institute

    more than 300 schools.6 Since then, the ACCESS budget has fluctuated between $10.3 million and 22.8 million, and was $18.1 million during the 2009-10 school year.7

    At the inception of ACCESS, 22 courses were available, with the understanding that more would be offered, depending upon demand and curriculum needs.8 In its first semester of operation in the fall of 2005, ACCESS had an enrollment of 489 students spread across several dozen schools. This number grew to 1,075 students in the spring of 2006, and in the summer of 2006, 913 students were enrolled.9

    During the 2006-07 school year, the first online AP courses were provided to qualifying students, and the Advanced Diploma option became available to all public high school students in the state. In the fall semester of 2006, 3,098 students were enrolled in ACCESS courses.10


    In Alabama, ACCESS uses a variety of distance learning equipment. The typical ACCESS classroom contains computer cameras, monitors and/or projectors for viewing content and teachers, interactive whiteboards, wireless routers, and a minimum of 25 tablet computers. In addition, instructors, administrators and other school personnel are given specialized training to manage ACCESS

    6 ACCESS Distance Learning, Alabama State Department of Education, ACCESS: A Plan for Continued Excellence, 2011-2016, Jan. 2011. Documents/NewPlan/ACCESSPlanFinalJan2011.pdf (last visited Dec. 19, 2011).

    7 Talbot Bielefeldt, M. D. Roblyer & Brandon Olszewski, Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, & Students Statewide (ACCESS): Year Four Evaluation Report. International Society for Technology in Education, Oct. 7, 2010. http://

    8 ACCESS Distance Learning, Alabama State Department of Education, ACCESS Distance Learning— Making a Difference in Alabama Schools. Email from Earlene Patton, ACCESS Program Administrator (Aug. 24, 2011) (on file with author).

    9 Id. 10 Id.

    classrooms.11 At the time of the last installations, the cost of the physical equipment was $85,000 per school, not including training and support.12

    To develop courses, ACCESS either contracts with in- state teachers to create content or purchases off-the-shelf from vendors. In the latter case, it also acquires the rights to modify the material, giving the state full ownership of the coursework.13

    Distance learning courses in Alabama are typically taught in one or both of the following formats: synchronous and asynchronous. Courses with synchronous content typically use IVC, while asynchronous courses use web-based content. The following paragraphs from the November 2004 report by the Governor’s Task Force on Distance Learning describe the strengths of both of these formats:

    The highly structured learning environment and the teaching-by-telling method make interactive synchronous learning good for reinforcing knowledge or for speedy correction of misunderstandings. Group-based synchronous classes enable instructors to pace learning activities consistently and they may improve motivation in some learners through