The idea that public school departments in Maine should be allowed to develop and market Phoenix-style online courses makes a lot of sense, especially in Auburn where the City Council has just asked the School Committee to trim $2.5 million from its proposed budget.

Last week, we reported on LD 938, a concept developed by the Auburn School Department and already passed through the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, to generate revenue for public schools through the sale of online courses.

The target audience for these courses, at least right now, is in China where there is great interest among teens to take American high school courses as they prepare to apply to American colleges and universities.

According to Auburn Superintendent Tom Morrill, “the idea is to pump some revenue back into the community to lower taxes and afford our students here the opportunity to network with students from foreign countries.”

He doesn’t know how much money the school department could make, but any new revenue will help the school district, especially when some online courses are already developed and merely need to be delivered to foreign or out-of-state consumers.

The United States and China have a long established tradition of trade, and the idea that we could export high school classes to a country with over 1.3 billion citizens just makes sense, especially when we already enjoy educational and cultural partnerships.

Last June, the University of Maine at Farmington and Beijing University of Technology celebrated the 20th anniversary of their exchange program, a joint partnership of culture, education and friendship.

In 2007, SAD 17 Superintendent Mark Eastman and a number of other Oxford Hills school officials traveled to China to finalize plans for what became a successful teacher exchange program. At the time, it was believed to be the first such staff exchange program in Maine, but there are numerous other partnerships across this country.

The River Valley School District has welcomed Chinese exchange students to their classes for a number of years, with local families hosting the students in their homes.

In Millinocket, Stearns High School administrators actively recruit tuition-paying Chinese students to travel to Maine. It’s a program that has really helped boost the student population there, but it takes a huge community commitment to physically host these students.

Technology now makes it possible to develop these partnerships online, expanding opportunities to learn — and to make money — without the expense and inconvenience of travel.

Online courses developed in Auburn, and to be developed in other schools, are exceptionally portable and if Chinese students are keen on taking these courses, we ought to do everything we can to accommodate that market.

Maine already has significant ties to China and, according to a recent Maine Center for Economic Policy report, Maine’s own Asian population has doubled since the 1990s, with Asians now accounting for about 1 percent of all residents. Their contribution to our economy is growing, with indications that growth will continue. Perhaps, with the help of this local population, we can aggressively market courses throughout Asia.

While the immediate target market for online high school courses is China because we know there is great demand, the market is not limited to China.

The idea that high schools could develop specialty e-courses with open enrollment could help Maine students, too, who could take elective courses online to augment their in-school coursework. The option may also offer savings to smaller school districts that struggle to offer a wide variety of elective coursework.

Colleges are making it work, and it just makes sense for high schools to mimic that success.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.


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