‘Relationships matter a lot’: Montana Digital Academy honored for credit recovery classes

The Montana Digital Academy team received a Blackboard Inc. Catalyst Award July 19 in Orlando for its school credit recovery program. Left to right: Tim Atkins, Blackboard chief client officer; Jason Neiffer, MTDA assistant director/curriculum director; Mike Agostinelli, MTDA instructional program director; and Bill Ballhaus, Blackboard CEO, president and chairman. (Craig Huey Photography)

The Montana Digital Academy staff is always tweaking and changing things for the better, making the state’s online school program more user friendly by keeping students on the path forward through courses.

Three staff members of the Montana Digital Academy, or MTDA, were winners of the international Blackboard Inc. Catalyst Award in the teaching and learning category this month for their implementation of a Blackboard software and their newly redesigned credit recovery program.

MTDA’s Mike Agostinelli, Robert Currie and Jason Neiffer implemented the new program in 2015, and saw an overall increase in student satisfaction.

“We really decided we needed to develop something internally that we controlled and that we could tweak as our student body changed, as our needs changed,” said Neiffer, MTDA’s assistant director and curriculum director.

Since 2005, the annual Catalyst Awards have recognized innovation and excellence in technology within the Blackboard global community. Among several categories, staff at Blackboard reviewed how different users are engaging with their communities through education.

Jennie Breister, Blackboard’s senior field marketing manager for the K-12 division, was on the selection committee for the teaching and learning category, and said MTDA’s programs created a better learning experience for students.

“The key to why they won amongst other impressive submissions is that they really embodied what the teaching and learning category was all about in terms of demonstrating and having a positive impact on the educational experience,” Breister said. “And for Montana Digital [Academy], that educational experience is statewide; they impacted the community at a statewide level.”

The academy started in 2010 and is funded through a state appropriation. The development of the new credit recovery program was funded through the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation and a joint collaboration with the Missoula County Public Schools and the University of Montana called SHAPE P-20.

Two years later, the credit recovery program now offers 17 high school core classes, including algebra and geometry, English, social studies and science. These courses are designed to be flexible for students who are lacking credits to graduate and who have failed a course in the past.

“In particular to the credit recovery program, we pretty strongly message that this really needs to be a team approach,” Neiffer said. “Enrolling a student and kind of sending them on their own, especially a credit recovery student who is struggling, is just not a successful strategy.”

The course is run through a learning management system called Moodlerooms, an online hub of classes and assignments that students can access. These courses also include the Blackboard Personal Learning Designer that allows the student, teachers and others to be alerted based on student data.

For example, when a student scores below a 65 percent on an assignment, quiz or test, it displays an alert to the student, the teacher and the local school facilitator about the grade, resulting in a more direct support system for the student.

When a student has a hard time, MTDA’s system offers notifications with 24-hour tutor assistance and help by other teachers.

“By alerting students, by alerting our teachers, by alerting the local school facilitators of data, good or bad, we really feel like we have a fighting chance of getting a student who might otherwise struggle, to get through the entire class,” Neiffer said. “So it’s really building a team approach around these students.”

Other changes within the Moodlerooms system include a course progress meter, simple graphics and assignment restrictions.

With these additions, a student knows how close they are to finishing a course while simple graphics, like a thumb’s up, visually rewards the student for their hard work. Restricting students to master one module or unit at a time before moving onto the next one is another updated feature, Neiffer said.

“Those little pieces do make a difference for kids,” he said.

With the introduction of the new program, MTDA has seen a 91 percent satisfaction rate among students and a positive impact on graduation rates across the state, with about a 99 percent passing rate for credit recovery courses. About 5,000 semester credits have been recovered by Montana students statewide.

Robert Currie, the executive director of MTDA, said the academy serves about 3,500 students every year, with about 8,000 course enrollments each year. Many have unique circumstances, like students with medical issues or who are studying abroad. Others, especially in Montana, use it while living in very rural areas.

“What we found in Montana, because of our extensive distances, many schools with under 100 students, or even 150 students, we see the program as really being something that’s going to continue to be important and maybe even vital to the smallest of schools,” he said. “It makes the equality of opportunity for their students much more on par with what that student would receive at one of our bigger city schools, and that’s important.”

Breister said that MTDA’s success is due to the staff’s constant updating of the programs they offer.

“They’re kind of obsessive about it. They never feel like they’re really done perfecting or making it better,” Breister said. “They’ve got a great model now that they’ve already got plans of ways they’re going to improve it next year. Just that mentality of growth and change with the learner is pretty impressive.”

Neiffer said that plans are ongoing for implementing an accordion design, where students who are doing well in the course get fewer notifications about tutorials and extra help on assignments, while students who are struggling will receive more notifications with access to additional instruction or tutoring.

At the end of the day, Neiffer wants to enhance relationships among students, their teachers, and the program while also giving action to data that will result in a better outcome for the student.

“The content alone is really just a small part of what we do because from what we know with our experience working with kids is that they need a little more than that, and so for us, relationships matter a lot,” Neiffer said.