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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.

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