Online-learning advocates are calling a new report that recommends 10 ways for states to change policy to increase access and equity in digital learning one of the most comprehensive efforts of its kind.
And with two former governors leading the promotion of “Digital Learning Now”—the first document released by the Digital Learning Council since former state chief executives Jeb Bush of Florida and Bob Wise of West Virginia announced the group’s creation in August—there are growing indications that policymakers outside the online-learning realm are considering the potential of digital technologies.
But whether the council’s goals are realistic remains to be seen.
“Do you negotiate for the status quo plus an incremental change, or do you make it aspirational?” said Mr. Wise, who conceded that some of the suggestions—such as restructuring school funding models, teacher-pay structures, and course-completion guidelines—could require daunting policy overhauls in most states.
Bob Wise on “Digital Learning Now”
“What we put down [in writing] today, in a year, technology can rapidly make obsolete. But at least this provides a road map to every governor and every state chief policymaker and educator about steps we can begin implementing right now.”
In a meeting with Education Week editors and reporters, Mr. Wise and council consultants Tom Vander Ark and Bennet Ratcliff emphasized that most of the suggestions were already being carried out in early-adopting states. For example, during Mr. Bush’s tenure in Florida, a 2003 state policy change allowed state education funding to follow students who wanted to take courses from the Florida Virtual School, which operates as its own district and now serves about 97,000. That allowed the school’s enrollment—free to all Florida students—to grow exponentially since then, unlike virtual schools in other states where political pressures have kept state virtual school funding, and thus enrollment, capped.
Mr. Wise and the consultants said other recommendations, such as transferring all state assessments to a digital platform and expanding state infrastructure to make a more hospitable environment for digital learning, are boosted by initiatives such as the common academic standards effort and the Federal Communication Commission’s National Broadband Plan.
“It comes along at just the right time, because now you’ve got 41 [44 at press time] states who have said we want these [common] standards,” said Mr. Wise. “This gives states a chance to really look at how they’re going to implement the common core in curriculum, in teacher preparation and development, in assessments, and how best to do that online.”
While the council—which convened entirely virtually and consists of 100 members from across education, business, technology, and research industries—plans to issue ratings a year from now based on how closely states are following their suggestions, there’s still no guarantee states will listen. Experts say the recommendation to link teacher pay to student course completion and performance could face opposition from teachers’ unions across states, and the suggestion to explore multiple providers of high-quality digital content may in some states necessitate abolition of textbook-adoption policies.
A report from the Digital Learning Council outlines 10 policies it says states and districts need to put in place and support to ensure high-quality digital learning.
1. Make all students eligible to be digital learners.
2. Give all students access to high-quality online courses and content.
3. Allow students to customize their learning via online content.
4. Allow students to advance at their own pace.
5. Ensure that all online content is high-quality.
6. Ensure that instruction and teachers are high-quality.
7. Allow students access to multiple providers of content.
8. Measure content and instruction by student learning.
9. Create funding and pay incentives for performance.
10. Build infrastructure to support digital learning.
SOURCE: Digital Learning Council
“I think that one of the things we noticed most was that it tends to look at developing policies as if there weren’t any prior policies on the state level,” said Bradley J. Hull, the deputy executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. “There’s going to be a lot of work for states to look at what they already have in place.”
John I. Wilson, the executive director of the National Education Association, said advocating performance pay is a recycled idea that does not represent the 21st-century view the report is trying to promote.
Despite a suggestion calling for high-quality digital instruction, he added, the voice and role of teachers is absent from the report, though he does support its call for competency-based pathways that would let students progress at their own pace after mastering course concepts.
With more teacher input for the report, “it would’ve come out very clearly that technology is not a teacher; technology is a tool that enhances the teaching process,” said Mr. Wilson. “You can tell there’s no teacher imprint in this document. I think that it’s a very corporate kind of document.”
Some of the report’s guidelines may even garner concern within the online-learning world. For example, while all 16 member states in the Southern Regional Education Board have statewide online schools, Myk Garn, the Atlanta-based organization’s director of technology, said many may have reservations about the suggestion that all students have access to multiple content providers.
“I’ve got to kind of talk to my folks and see how well this aligns with their thinking and their directions,” Mr. Garn said. “What I’m hearing from the Digital Learning Council, and their discussion, which makes sense, is less about the idea of driving quality, but driving innovation; that we’re not going to have the wealth of creative ideas coming in unless we have multiple providers.”
Mr. Garn also said that while the report is comprehensive, it shouldn’t ignore the realistic goal of incremental progress. He noted that policymakers in Michigan are more receptive to the idea of seat-time waivers that allow students to progress through courses at their own pace as a result of a policy passed in 2006 that requires high school students to take at least one online course before graduation, and thus exposes educators to the self-paced nature of online courses.
And, while still difficult, the state level may be the best bet for sweeping technology reform. Educational technology champions generally have praised federal government initiatives like the National Broadband Plan and the National Education Technology Plan, federally generated outlines of how to increase broadband access in communities, and how to integrate technology to transform learning. But they say they understand a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a Democratic-controlled Senate—the political makeup of Congress come January—could mean a lack of federal push for those goals, even if they are understood as being relatively apolitical.
With Mr. Bush, a Republican, and Mr. Wise, a Democrat, leading the Digital Learning Council, they say the body may have a strong chance to push more substantial reform.
“There are fundamental questions at the national level about what business we’re going to be able to get done,” said Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association and a member of the council’s executive committee. “To have [the governors] cross the aisle and say that education is important and that we actually agree on a fair set of ideas … reflects a growing consensus that is not partisan, but plays out in a partisan environment, about productive ways to drive some positive innovation in education.”