Ed. Experts Critique 'Digital Learning Day'

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, second from right, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, right, prepare for a town hall meeting at the Newseum in Washington that was live-streamed online as part of Digital Learning Day.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, second from right, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, right, prepare for a town hall meeting at the Newseum in Washington that was live-streamed online as part of Digital Learning Day.
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At the very least, last week's inaugural Digital Learning Day presented participants a chance to learn about some of the most creative ways educators have merged technology into their teaching methods. The hope by organizers is that it will also serve as a catalyst for others to follow suit.

And while it's far too early to tell whether the day, observed Feb. 1, will have any long-term impact on the adoption of digital practices in education, the release of a new federal resource advising educators about digital-textbook adoption, and the participation of 39 states and the District of Columbia in marking the day, are two favorable signs, said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise.

"To be frank with you, this thing has taken off much more than I assumed," said Mr. Wise, a Democrat and now the president of the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, the nonprofit group that organized the day. In late 2010, Mr. Wise's group also teamed up with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, to launch the Digital Learning Now campaign aimed at pushing states to adopt more digital-friendly policies.

"But this is not about any particular policy," Mr. Wise said of Digital Learning Day. "This is celebrating the teacher and technology."

Indeed, most of the 90 minutes spent at a national town hall meeting held in Washington and streamed live online was devoted to guidance for teachers. That included the "Digital Textbook Playbook"Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader issued by the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission, Skype visits to schools around the country in various stages of digital transformations, a video presentation with Khan Academy founder Salman Kahn, and an interview with National Online Teacher of the Year Kristin Kipp.

Mr. Wise also stressed that, while the meeting was a one-day event, its message was clearly for educators to think regularly about weaving digital approaches into their instruction as a way to change the way they teach, rather than just treating them as an add-on. He also indicated that festivities for the day would likely continue next year.

Many advocates for educational technology warn against doing the latter, and have in the past frowned upon initiatives that separate technology from teaching. And some critics wondered whether the day was simply a publicity vehicle for Digital Learning Now, an initiative some argue has the primary motive of helping companies that provide digital content expand their market.

"It's just a PR stunt," said Gene V. Glass, a senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The NEPC in October released a report that called for more oversight of virtual education, and in January released another report showing privately run public virtual schools to be significantly underperforming compared with privately run public brick-and-mortar schools, as measured by adequate yearly progress, or AYP. ("Firms Scrap for Share of School-Management Market," January 25, 2012.)

"I think it's just the continued push by a group of companies," Mr. Glass added.

Public-Private Initiatives

But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski have consistently expressed the desire to team with private companies, through recent initiatives such as the FCC-led Connect to Compete, a public-private effort to ensure all students of low-income families have a low-cost option for broadband Internet service.

In unveiling the "Digital Textbook Playbook," Mr. Duncan and Mr. Genachowski were endorsing the efforts of another public-private body, the Digital Textbook Collaborative, which boasts members from more than two dozen companies and nonprofit organizations, including Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, Verizon, and the "Big Three" of textbook publishing. (Apple and the Big Three—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson—have also teamed up in Apple's new digital-textbook venture, announced last month.)

At the town hall meeting, Mr. Genachowski also challenged states and educational content suppliers to ensure that all students nationwide have access to digital educational resources within five years, and he announced he would be convening the chiefs of major digital education companies in March to create a plan to meet such a challenge.

"Our country has proved over and over again that we can do anything," Mr. Genachowski said. "We'll use every lever we can."

Teachers and Technology

The "playbook" is organized into four sections that roughly follow the chronological chain of issues schools must address when making a transition from primarily print to mostly digital resources: switching content to digital formats; establishing Internet connectivity throughout the school; establishing Internet connectivity throughout the community the school serves; and tailoring content to meet the capabilities of the particular devices owned or used by students.

While Mr. Wise acknowledged that neither the National Education Association nor the American Federation of Teachers, the two national teachers' unions, had signed on as official partners of Digital Learning Day, AFT President Randi Weingarten did join a panel discussion about how technology would be a key tool in an AFT-led initiative to revitalize the schools and communities of McDowell County, W.Va.

The NEA, meanwhile, recently issued a policy brief expressing support for the practice of blended learning, which combines elements of brick-and-mortar and online instruction.

Mr. Wise said getting unions and individuals to understand that digital education is not an enemy of human instruction was a key focus of the Feb. 1 observance.

"One of the messages for Digital Learning Day is this is about the teacher as much as it is about the technology," he said in an interview.

Vol. 31, Issue 20, Page 8

Published in Print: February 8, 2012, as 'Digital Learning Day' Launched
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