The New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled in its Abbott v. Burke decision that the state must implement by September 1997, a funding system that insures equal educational opportunities for all students regardless of the district they attend. In response, the New Jersey Department of Education developed a school funding plan driven by the rigorous Core Curriculum Content Standards and is based on the "efficient" delivery of a "thorough" education. This plan, the Comprehensive Plan for Educational Improvement and Financing (May 1996), recommended $50 million be included in the FY 1997-98 state budget for a distance learning network. Funds are distributed on a flat, per pupil rate to all districts. The network for delivery of voice, video, and data offers all districts (including those that are poor and have large numbers of disadvantaged students) an opportunity to obtain quality programs for their students to effectively implement the standards. With adequate, broad-based funding, there will be far-reaching impact that results in united efforts and practices for educators and educational institutions statewide.
Distance learning is an integrated system of voice, video, and data capable of delivering quality curriculum and instruction to schools. It can mean equal access to educational services for every student and teacher and administrator in New Jersey. These services include (but are not limited to) instructional opportunities, electronic field trips, professional development, and broad information access.
Distance learning brings the world to the classroom by offering access to people, places, and ideas -- regardless of geographic constraints. If implemented effectively, distance learning has the potential for bringing high quality curricula to all students. It creates opportunities for cross-cultural interaction. It links schools to each other and to the outside world. It provides high quality services and programs in all types of districts statewide by building electronic communities. Students can access services when they need them, where they need them, and in a manner appropriate to their ages and learning styles.
In a typical distance learning classroom, teachers/students can connect with teachers/ students at a number of other sites simultaneously using interactive video and audio transmissions. Traditional distance learning classrooms are equipped with technologies to facilitate full interaction: monitors, cameras, student and instructor microphones, a fax machine, and a document camera. Other options for distance learning are videoconferencing and telecommunications-based activities including accessing Internet resources and electronic mail.
Distance learning makes it possible to provide all students with access to expanded course offerings and unique learning opportunities. Courses with traditional low-enrollments, like advanced calculus, Russian, or bilingual algebra II, can be offered because distance learning enables a teacher to teach in many districts without physically moving from one site. Through a distance learning network, colleges are able to offer courses to high school students; middle school students are able to take high school courses; and elementary students are able to participate in collaborative projects with schools around the world as well as take electronic field trips. Distance learning also allows schools to link with the business community, bringing industry-based specialists to the classroom and assisting in the school-to-work transition. Best of all, learning opportunities expand as students use distance learning activities without regard to socioeconomic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Thus, when students are able to participate in electronic communities, all benefit from shared experiences.
Although the primary focus in distance learning is to serve the needs of students, teachers can use distance learning to grow professionally -- e.g., observing and discussing effective teaching techniques or participating in staff development courses. Telecommunications-based electronic communities enable teachers to collaborate to develop high quality curriculum and instruction. In many schools equipped with interactive teleconferencing, teachers, students, and administrators are using the distance learning network for off-site meetings -- without ever leaving the building. The $50 million recommended in the Comprehensive Plan was slated to provide districts with distance learn ing network aid on a per pupil basis to assist the major investments necessary to access broad electronic communities over distance.
To be eligible for the distance learning network aid, each district was required to develop a long-range plan for becoming part of the distance learning network within five years (by the 2001-2002 school year)*. The district-based plans were compiled by a districtwide planning committee representing all stakeholders -- administrators, teachers, parents, business community members, and students and include the following components:
- educational goals and measurable academic objectives;
- implementation strategies, including integrating activities and sharing resources;
- staff development activities;
- planned expenditures including hardware/software, line charges, and maintenance;
- provisions for acquiring, connecting and maintaining equipment for the distance learning activities;
- evaluation plan; and
- a description regarding how the distance learning technology is to be integrated with existing curriculum and technology activities.
* Districts subsequently updated their technology plans through 2004.
However, in order to establish a statewide distance learning network, where all school districts will be able to share programs that offer their students the same opportunities, there must be coordination at the county and state levels. To that end, each school district will be required to submit a brief outline of its plan to a county-based Distance Learning Coordinating Council. These councils are to be comprised of district representatives, members with experience in educational technology, curriculum implementation, voice, video, and data networks, and others - including representatives from libraries, higher education institutions, business/industry, etc. They are to be chaired by the county superintendent (who will be the final authority in determining if the plan enables the district to qualify for the funding). The councils' purpose is to insure that the local plans and purchases comply with and support the development of a countywide network. Without this coordination, the success of a statewide distance learning network cannot be guaranteed.
Once a district plan is approved, distance learning network aid will be generated and the use of these funds restricted to the expenditures outlined in the approved plan.
At the state level, a New Jersey Distance Learning Coordinating Council will be established to review county plans and guide statewide distance learning initiatives. This organization will include representation from local, county, regional and state entities and will address the necessary policy and related governance issues for the distance learning network. The council will insure that each county is not an isolated system. It will also serve to direct additional resources to accelerate the connection between counties.
Monitoring the implementation of local distance learning plans will be the responsibility of the Division of Field Services. The Office of Educational and Informational Technology established guidelines, gather planning models to assist districts in writing and reviewing their long range plans, post the distance learning schedules and services on the state home page, coordinate aggregate purchasing opportunities, and work with the county-based educational technology training centers to provide technical assistance sessions on distance learning.
In summary, the goal is to insure that every student in New Jersey has access to a wide array of electronic services through a statewide, integrated information delivery system. When New Jersey's distance learning network is fully operational, any student in any district will be able to access a full range of curriculum offerings (e.g., students in inner city districts and small rural districts will be able to enroll in advanced Russian courses). It is anticipated that this distance learning network will unite the state's schools, with effective programs and practices available to all students.