In 2003, almost 32% 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 attracting and hiring teachers 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.
In 2004, Governor Bob Riley created the Task Force on Distance Learning to address these problems. The solution was to blend traditional classroom teachers with the internet and videoconferencing technology to provide students and schools access to necessary resources. By leveraging those emerging technologies, ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Schools Statewide), created three regional support centers (supervised and coordinated from Montgomery) 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. The University of Alabama Support Center was selected to house the course development team to design all ACCESS courses.
At the inception of ACCESS, 22 courses were available, with the understanding that more would be offered depending upon demand and curriculum needs. 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. By the fall semester of the 2006-2007 academic school year, over 3,000 students were enrolled in ACCESS courses.
Approximately 25,000 students across the state of Alabama are currently taking classes through ACCESS. Today, over 120 classes are offered, which encompasses the entire high school curriculum at no cost to Alabama students or schools. As a result of Riley's vision, ACCESS is a national leader in delivering online classes to high school students. In the future, Alabama students will continue to be prepared for the challenges of the digital world.
- Alabama Policy Institute, Classes Without Walls: ACCESS Learning Works for Alabama