Photo Jason Neiffer is Assistant Director/Curriculum Director at Montana Digital Academy

Improving Education Access in Rural Montana


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Sep 13, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

Montana Digital Academy, created in 2009, is the state online program that serves all 146,000 K-12 students in Montana through their local public school.1 The academy offers various online programs that have greatly benefited students across the state, including a learner-focused credit recovery program, which has positively impacted graduation rates in the schools of 89% of surveyed principals. Due to enhancing access to courses and content for all students in Montana, regardless of location or resources, Montana Digital Academy is one of the winners of the 2018 Blackboard Catalyst Awards for Teaching and Learning.

With an economy based primarily in agriculture, the state of Montana, in Northwestern United States, is the 4th largest in area and the 3rd least densely populated, with just over one million people, 65% of them living in rural areas.2

Located at the University of Montana, Montana Digital Academy (MTDA) was created by the 2009 state legislature to deliver distance learning programs in different formats, to meet the needs of students in local public schools across the Big Sky Country. Since 2010, the academy has had over 50,000 enrollments.

“A driving factor in our program is access. Many students in rural Montana are at smaller schools that don’t have the resources to provide access to advanced placement and dual credit courses, or electives like Psychology that are not offered at their local school, or summer programs that can allow a student early graduation,” says Dr. Jason Neiffer, assistant director/curriculum director at Montana Digital Academy. “MTDA is an essential tool for enabling all students in Montana, regardless of location or resources, to access courses and content based on their needs and desires.”

Programs at Montana Digital Academy

  • The original credit program offers cohort-style distance learning courses in over 70 subjects, including core subjects like geometry and world history, as well as elective courses like criminology and AP environmental science.
  • The credit recovery program serves students that have previously failed a face-to-face course and need a credit to continue with their school program and ultimately graduate.
  • The middle school Multi-Language Sampler gives middle school aged students the opportunity to be introduced to a new language.
  • EdReady is a personalized learning system for learners ranging from upper elementary to adult basic education.

Boosting Graduation Rates: The Credit Recovery Program

One of the most successful MTDA initiatives is the credit recovery program, which offers learning alternatives to students who have failed a face-to-face core course. By studying online, these students can recover the credits they need while continuing with their school program, and eventually graduate.

According to Neiffer, Montana Digital Academy has offered credit recovery courses since 2011, based on data from schools that suggested that students who qualified for a credit recovery course found the original credit format was not meeting their needs.

“The credit recovery program provides a more flexible environment that utilizes a team approach to build a support system around this unique student population,” affirms the director.

According to Neiffer, in order to implement the program, MTDA initially adopted an all-in-one vendor-based solution, with content and learning management wrapped up in one system. However, they ultimately outgrew the solution.

“While it allowed us to roll out the program quickly to meet demand, over time, we found that the solution didn’t allow for customizations and adaptations to best meet the needs of our students,” he says.

After evaluating other credit recovery-focused solutions available in the market, MTDA ultimately decided to develop its own system utilizing toolsets that they had already adopted for the initial program. This was done within Blackboard Classroom.

In 2013, MTDA participated in a grant program called SHAPE P-20, an initiative by the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation to fund innovative programs in the Missoula County Public School and University of Montana.

“Under the leadership of MTDA Executive Director, Bob Currie, MTDA successfully applied for seed money to redevelop our credit recovery program to meet the needs of our students. Over the next 24 months, our staff engaged teachers, site facilitators, and academic researchers to rebuild a new credit recovery program that increased student satisfaction, increased flexibility without diminishing learning outcomes and effectiveness, increased communication to stakeholders, and provided data to local schools about student progress to highlight the need for increased support,” says Neiffer.

After many prototypes were designed, built and tested internally, the program was ultimately released in Fall 2015, completely replacing the previous platform.

Supporting Student Success

The new credit recovery program has resulted so far in nearly 5,000 semester credits recovered by Montana students statewide. The program has many new features that help drive student success. See below the main ones:

1. A Learning Pathway

Students have a learning pathway with course designs inspired by mastery learning. “Students must master material before moving forward, and the ones that struggle are offered additional remedial activities and access to resources to facilitate learning. This design addresses an issue with the previous program, where students would spend time jumping from activity to activity without completing assignments or assessments,” the director explains.

According to Neiffer, following a learning pathway increases the likelihood that students will gain an understanding of the content.

2. Just-in-Time Communications

The new learning model utilizes the Blackboard Classroom Personalized Learning Designer (PLD) to provide ‘just- in-time’ communications to all interested parties, including students, teachers, and the teachers and counselors at the student’s local school to increase transparency.

3. Data Reports

The possibility to analyze data to track student progress is an important feature of the new program. Neiffer explains that the new course format sends out regular “data pings” with progress information to MTDA’s internal systems to develop dynamic progress reports and visualizations.

“After our initial release, in 2015, we received an incredible trove of feedback from all of our stakeholders, including a desire of our local support personnel to have customized reports that help track student progress over a semester. We were encouraged by these requests as they told us that our focus on learning design had increased interest in student progress,” says Neiffer.

Using the Blackboard Classroom Personalized Learning Designer, MTDA created an infrastructure where each course sends out regular data updates on student progress via email into their reports system.

“We use an external tool to parse that email and feed the information into a Google Suite for Education spreadsheet. We then created custom algorithms that predict whether or not a student is likely or not to be on the pathway to finish the course. That data gives local facilitators more nuanced information, so they may act on behalf of the student,” Neiffer explains.

Turning Students into Better Learners

For Montana Digital Academy, teaching and supporting online students is a team effort. The director often tells schools that “It takes a village to teach an online student,” something that, according to him, has proven to be right repeatedly at MTDA.

According to the director, while some students adjust well to distance learning programs, enrolling, and successfully completing classes with little assistance, for all others, a team approach is the “X-factor” that can make the difference between success and failure.

“For most students, that means parental involvement, along with assistance from local facilitators and teachers, technical support staff, and even teacher-librarians and special education teachers, all of whom need to be on the same page for the student to make progress,” says Neiffer.

To engage that team, communication is the key. Sending email notifications, providing guidance to teachers on the right times to reach out to students based on concerning behavior, and encouraging all teachers to make phone calls and establish connections with both students and parents are some of the successful initiatives.

“We strongly believe that the technology is less important than people and pedagogy. We work hard to find Montana public school teachers that have a passion for connecting with students and are willing to develop their skillsets in the direction of taking advantage of distance learning environments, rather than feel limited by the model. This means that we take the teacher role very seriously, and work to adapt our teacher model to meet the needs of our ever-changing student body,” says Neiffer.

In addition, as part of their commitment to students, MTDA is careful not to oversell and overpromise in their distance learning model.

“I have personally seen hundreds of different students in unique circumstances that were best served in a distance learning model for one or more courses, and also situations where we weren’t the right choice. We need to treat each student as a unique opportunity to look at their goals, dreams, and needs, and make sure that the programs and pathways we offer help them make forward progress,” Neiffer affirms.

“We are incredibly proud of our work thus far but know there is more to do. As technologies evolve and provide new ways to track and visualize student success, display engaging content, and make learning more accessible and mobile, we look forward to working with our students and teachers to adapt and change for the better. We feel lucky to be doing this important work!”

Montana Digital Academy Teaching and Learning Best Practices

Listen to student voices. “We run student surveys for every program and session and analyze that student data to look for ways to adapt curriculum and teacher practice to meet student needs. Our future course planning is based entirely on student voices. If students aren’t requesting a course as part of our regular student voice surveys, it doesn’t make it into our catalog,” says Neiffer.

Stay up to date with research. “MTDA is very mindful of the confluence between available student feedback and research on distance learning and brain-based pedagogy. We regularly review research for ideas to pilot and try, and then integrate the student feedback before we rollout more widely in our program.”

Find new ways to engage. “We are interested in looking at the workflow of all those engaged in the program, including students, teachers, and those that support learners in their local school. The right thing to do for student learning isn’t always the most elegant in implementation, so we pay attention to see if we can adapt our tools to make engagement as efficient as possible.”

Quick facts

  • Over 50,000 enrollments since 2010.
  • 2,000 students from over 200 schools enrolled per semester.
  • 85.75% passage rate at the original credit program.
  • 90% of students satisfied or very satisfied with the credit recovery program.
  • Nearly 5,000 semester credits recovered by Montana students statewide.
  • 89.2% of school administrators say that the credit recovery program has positively impacted their graduation rate.
  • 100% of school administrators say that Montana Digital Academy provides access to courses that would otherwise not be available at their school.


Blackboard Classroom

According to Jason Neiffer, although MTDA has many experienced “Moodlers” among their administrative and teacher teams, Blackboard Classroom has been a significant step forward for the program due to three main reasons.

“First, we have come to rely on Blackboard Classroom as a stable platform that is going to be up no matter what. The platform has largely been 100% reliable,” he explains. “Second, the toolset built into Blackboard Classroom is extraordinarily powerful. Third, rather than merely dumping documents and resources into our courses, MTDA has endeavored to really manage learning with our learning management system. We work with our teachers and students to figure out what we can build that really moves student learning forward using the tools at our disposal.”


1 Montana Office of Public Instruction. (2017). Facts About Montana Education 2017. Retrieved July 23, 2018, from’s%20Folder/Facts-about-Montana-Ed2017.pdf

2 USDA-ERS. (2018, May 24). State Data. Retrieved July 23, 2018, from

Photos by: AFP – Tommy Martino