February 1, 2012

High-quality customizable learning options should be the rule, not the exception

By Dr. Lisa Duty, Director of External Affairs at KnowledgeWorks Ohio, and Terry Ryan vice-president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

One could argue that 2011 was the year of “digital learning” in Ohio and across the nation. In September, the White House announced its “Digital Promise” campaign, while a number of states have been embracing initiatives and campaigns in this realm, aided and encouraged by national groups like the Digital Learning Council and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Ohio’s biennial budget signed by Governor Kasich in late June launched the Ohio Digital Learning Task Force and charged it with ensuring that the state’s “legislative environment is conducive to and supportive of the educators and digital innovators at the heart of this transformation.”

Our two organizations – KnowledgeWorks and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute – are committed to seeing Ohio become a leader in the implementation of digital learning opportunities for the state’s 1.8 million students. Ohio now stands at an important crossroads and 2012 could be a pivotal year on whether we move forward in the digital learning environment.

Our state has been a path-breaker when it comes to availability of full-time e-school options that leverage technology in learning. In fact, if all 33,000 children currently enrolled in Ohio e-schools were in one school district it would make up the state’s third largest district just after Columbus and Cleveland. Despite such numbers, Ohio has yet to harness fully the potential of digital learning for all students. And, given that digital learning can yield improvements in student achievement and offer solutions for more efficient spending, Ohio can’t afford to wait.

In 2011 Keeping Pace, a national review of policy and practices in digital learning, Ohio received the highest rating possible for its availability of full-time online learning opportunities for students due to the state’s 27 virtual charter/community schools.  Ohio e-school enrollment of 33,000 students is up 15 percent since 2008. But digital learning can and should take many different forms—from the full-time online options of e-schools to individual students seeking supplemental coursework to meet needs not met by their brick and mortar schools.

New blended learning options like Rocketship in California have shown significant academic gains for traditionally under-served students, while Carpe Diem in Arizona improve the student experience because they allow for customization and personalization of learning in a way that is both “high-tech” (through the seamless integration of appropriate technologies with teaching practices) and “high-touch” (through meaningful and relevant learning experiences with in-person teachers to complement online instruction).

There are districts, schools and teachers in Ohio that are starting to show the way as well. The Dayton Regional STEM school, for example, teaches its students Mandarin Chinese through an online course, while the Clermont County Educational Service Center has partnered with area districts to create a Virtual Talented and Gifted program at a time when traditional programs are being scaled back or otherwise eliminated.  But, to maximize digital learning opportunities for all its children Ohio has to develop systems for learning that are radically different to what was crafted long ago for a place-bound, 180-day school year where children sat in rows of desks from morning to early afternoon.

To move Ohio from its industrial model of education to one better suited for education in the digital age we propose the following policies for 2012.

Remove barriers to digital learning
•    Remove teacher-student ratios and class size limits created for a traditional classroom.

•    Establish competency-based learning models that allow students to advance upon demonstrating mastery of knowledge or skills, not seat time.

•    Educate students and parents about their right to choose high-quality online courses and make available credible information about which digital courses or programs work best under what conditions as well as the costs of those courses or programs.

Encourage innovation
•    Provide all students in all grades access to a robust offering of high-quality courses from multiple high-quality providers in a competitive, data-driven marketplace.

•    Define in law blended brick-and-mortar schools so as to encourage new designs, generate pilots, and attract proven models while ensuring their funding.

•    Guarantee that funding follows the child to the individual course provider of their choice, evaluate providers based on student performance, and pay them in installments that incentivize completion and achievement.

•    Unbundle, define and enable new educator roles and challenge universities, the private sector and others to prepare adults to serve in new capacities.

Promote equity
•    Weight the funds for low-income and/or hard to serve students so as to control for the unintended consequences of digital providers selectively serving only students who are likely to demonstrate competency.

•    Power up all regions of Ohio by aggregating purchase request data and leveraging bulk discount pricing to support connectivity and device acquisition for all.

Create accountability for a new era of learning
•    End the archaic practice of funding seat-time, and fund course providers based on student performance instead of attendance.

•    Require student performance and student and family satisfaction data are published as indicators of quality of course providers.

High-quality customizable learning options should be the rule rather than the exception.  To more fully realize this goal in 2012 and beyond, Ohio lawmakers and policy makers need to embrace policies in education that encourage and support schools to innovate with digital learning technologies and opportunities, while ensuring all innovations are held accountable for performance and funded fairly and equitably.

Dr. Lisa Duty is Director of External Affairs at KnowledgeWorks, a social enterprise that incubates and scales up innovative schools and education initiatives.

Terry Ryan is vice-president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and is a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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One thought on “High-quality customizable learning options should be the rule, not the exception

  1. Great summary, Lisa and Terry.

    “Despite [33,000 e-students], Ohio has yet to harness fully the potential of digital learning for all students.” Quite an understatement.
    “Ohio can’t afford to wait.” Yea verily.

    Lisa, consider Ohio’s Credit Flexibility as a wedge to reaching the rest of our students:
    – CF is in place now
    – it offers a next path to reach the early adopters from all our schools
    – CF sets a “brand” if you will, for early blended learning.

    Actions 2,3,4,7, and 10 above define the waypoints.

    CF DOES end the practice of requiring seat time (action 10). It puts the definition of mastery and competency into the hands of the teacher.

    CF unbundles(action 7). Educator roles can change dramatically. Teachers can and should work together across districts. New individuals can be drawn in as ether subject experts or as coaches. Retired teachers might make a wonderful resource, and many others.

    The task now is to take CF to the level (action 3). After that, educators will demand and get funding (action 6). Getting to the next level,though, has to happen on the ground.

    Right now, CF hinges on the student, and his/her ability to find a teacher with time. It’s up to us in the digital learning community to change this. To empower both student and teacher.

    If we make the whole planning/evaluating process easier, it will take much of the burden off the teacher of record.

    Toward this, ODE has rolled out a COP tool, and plans seminars. Yet there’s much more that can be done.

    I work at this. I’d like to talk more.

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