Digital Learning

This eighth edition of Keeping Pace—digital education’s
yearbook cum encyclopedia—offers
promising statistics for online-learning proponents: All fifty states
and D.C.
now offer at least some sort of online or blended learning opportunity,
digital course enrollment jumping 19 percent in the last year alone.
Good news.
But there’s more. At an average per-pupil expense of about $7,000,
full-time online
learning can cost thousands less than the average brick-and-mortar
Other trends are interesting. Notably, single-district programs have
grown the
fastest this past year—with consortia programs greatly expanding as
well. (Implementation
of the Common Core standards will likely spur states to adopt this
model as well, say the authors.) Yet other trends serve as reminders
that we
have yet to unlock the full potential of online learning: Digital
programs are
serving a disproportionately low percentage of minorities, free and
reduced-price lunch students, English language learners, and students
with disabilities.
For those looking to winkle out digital-learning statistics, get a lay
of the
digital-learning landscape, or see how their own states fare in this
realm, Keeping Pace won’t disappoint.


Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on Keeping Pace from the Education Gadfly Show Podcast.


Online and Blended Learning report coverThis iNACOL (International Association for K-12
Online Learning) report, a follow-up to its 2006 survey, profiles the
digital-learning status of fifty countries from Albania to Thailand. It
documents global trends, issues, and challenges relating to digital learning—and
shows that the questions and concerns surrounding digital education in the U.S.
permeate national borders, much like the internet itself. Atop the list of
challenges: Survey respondents cited a lack of public knowledge of (and thus an
interest in) digital learning. Lack of funding was also a key barrier to
online-ed proliferation, survey respondents said. Unfortunately (though
understandably, given the scope), the report’s broad brush strokes offer little
by way of detail and even fewer international lessons for the States—even in
the nine country case studies. For more specifics, we’ll have to look

Michael Barbour, et
al., Online and
Blended Learning: A Survey of Policy and Practice from K-12 Schools Around the
(Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning, November

“Most changes in the ways schools operate can be
thought of as tools,” write Gene Glass, Kevin Welner, and Justin Bathon
in their
recent policy brief. “Used well, such tools can be beneficial; used
they can be harmful.” Agreed. The problem is that these authors seem
convinced of
online learning’s malevolence. Their evidence is the presence of
for-profits in
the digital-ed sector. Behind the proliferation of online
charters—the authors see corporate interests determined to squeeze
dollars out
of a poorly regulated yet potentially vast market with few consumer
protections. Private companies, they charge, will reap fortunes by
offering inferior products at inflated prices, enabled by cozy
relationships with
lawmakers. Further, they assert, research on the effects of digital
learning is
minimal, arguing that this “evidentiary void” is reason enough to slow
expansion of online-ed programs. (As if any innovation came with an
issued-in-advance “proof of quality” guarantee!) The conclusion is thus
In all but the most limited and tightly regulated forms, digital
schooling will
only wreak havoc on the American education system. For those with even a modicum of faith in
school choice and the free market, theirs is an exasperating argument—which is
why the general reasonableness of Glass’s, Welner’s, and Bathon’s policy proposals
is so surprising. They recommend that states: authenticate student work,
accredit online schools, audit...

  • Are Duncan’s waivers
    necessary or illegal? Are they both? Martha Derthick and Andy Rotherham offer
    their takes
    on the issue in the latest Education Next. And given that eleven states have just
    filed their early-round waiver applications
    , these are important
  • Nerds in the ranks,
    breathe a sigh of relief for your younger compatriots—those still walking the
    halls of America’s secondary schools. The influx of blended learning and
    tech-enabled education has made
    the need for lockers a thing of the past
    in some schools. Maybe, soon,
    no more pencil-pushers will need to spend third period crammed inside one.
  • You’ve got to give it to
    Californians for thinking outside the legislative box. Last week, a group
    in Los Angeles conjured
    up a forty-year-old law
    to sue the district for not implementing rigorous teacher evaluations. This week, a
    statewide group frustrated with the legislature’s failure to loosen
    restrictions on online learning is grabbing up signatories to a new
    Student Bill of Rights
    that would greatly expand access to digital
  • Education is
    evolving—digital education is blossoming and the power of the teacher
    unions is weakening. It’s simply the natural order of things, argues Larry Sand
    in the latest City Journal
    (drawing off Terry
    Moe’s arguments
    in Special
  • Looks like ESEA
    reauthorization is now stalled
    until 2012. Too bad
  • ...
Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

We don’t doubt that the digital future will transform
education—along with practically everything else. But rather than seeing it as
a painful (and politically volatile) trade-off between technology and teachers,
we propose that digital education needs excellent teachers and that a
first-rate teaching profession needs digital education. Schools will not require
as many conventional teachers as they did yesterday, but those they need will
be crucial—and will be able to tap top-notch technology and instructional
support teams to achieve excellence at scale. These teachers will get paid
more, too, potentially a lot more. And all this can be done within tight
budgets so long as education systems judiciously blend technology and people.

Digital learning has the potential to transform the teaching
profession in three major ways:

  • Extending
    the reach of excellent teachers to more students.
  • Attracting
    and retaining more excellent teachers.
  • Boosting
    effectiveness and job options for average teachers.

Extending the reach
of the best.
In the digital future, teacher effectiveness will matter even more than today. As digital learning
spreads, students worldwide will gain access to core knowledge and skills
instruction. What will increasingly differentiate outcomes for schools, states,
and nations is how well responsible adults carry out the more complex
instructional tasks: motivating students to go the extra mile, teaching them
time management, addressing social and emotional issues that affect their
learning, and diagnosing problems...

Will the move toward virtual and “blended learning” schools in American education repeat the mistakes of the charter-school movement, or will it learn from them?

Try this thought experiment: How much more successful might U.S. charter schools look today if, at the beginning of the charter movement two decades ago, proponents had spent the time and effort to consider what policies and supports would be needed to ensure its quality, freedom, rules and resources over the long term? What mistakes might have been avoided? Damaging scandals forestalled? Missed opportunities seized?

We can’t go back in time for charters but we can be smarter about the next major phase of education reform and innovation: taking high-quality virtual and blended schools to scale—and to educational success. To this end, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, with the support of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, has commissioned five deep-thought papers that, together, address the thorniest policy issues surrounding digital learning. The goal is to boost the prospects for successful online learning (both substantively and politically) over the long run.

In "School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era", Paul T. Hill zeroes in on the policy area most in need of reform if digital learning is to succeed: funding. “Our system doesn’t fund schools, and certainly doesn’t fund students,” he writes in “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era.” “Yet to encourage development and improvement of technology-based methods, we must find ways for public dollars to do just that—and to follow kids to online providers...

Bill Tucker
Managing Director of Education Sector

Guest blogger Bill Tucker, managing director of Education Sector, examines the latest installments in Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series in this post, which originally appeared on The Quick and the Ed.

Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction and School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era,
two new working papers in the Fordham Institute’s series on digital
learning, are welcome additions to the often narrow debates around
online learning.

“Teachers,” written by Public Impact’s Bryan and Emily Hassel, opens
with an important and refreshing perspective: “that digital education
needs excellent teachers and that the teaching profession needs digital
education.” Rather than replacing teachers, the authors see digital
learning as transforming teaching — both by offering tools for
traditional classroom teachers and by enabling entirely new ways of
teaching. Often missing from conversations around technology, the paper
outlines the varied roles that teachers play, including helping with
motivation, social and emotional support, and stretching critical
thinking and analytical skills. It concludes that the future is a much
more differentiated field, with a smaller number of higher-paid, more
empowered teachers acting in teams with a variety of specialized and
lower-paid support personnel. (School of One offers one glimpse of this future.)

Some of the paper’s most interesting discussions touch on new
administrative structures and the role...

Tom Vander Ark
Founder of

In this post, guest blogger Tom Vander Ark analyzes the latest installments in Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series. It originally appeared on the Getting Smart blog.

Fordham released two important papers today as part of the Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series. The first, Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction,
is by the co-directors of Public Impact. Bryan and Emily Hassel are the
Malcolm Gladwells of education—they point to profound truths hiding in
plain sight.  In short, this is the best current description of the
implications of digital learning on learning professionals.

The Hassel’s primary assertion is that in the age of digital
learning, “Teacher effectiveness may matter even more than it does
today.” I buy the argument that edtech will increasingly build basic
skill but they run the risk of being trapped in a Rocketship Education
rut—tech does easy stuff, teachers promote critical thinking. That’s one
currently useful pattern, but innovative delivery models are advancing
other alternatives.

Their conclusion that “The elements of excellent teaching that are
most difficult for technology to replace will increasingly differentiate
student outcomes,” may be projecting a bit of the individual
practitioner past into a team based design-centric future.

The Hassels write about the implications for individuals but I’m a
fan of design thinking—systems and cultures matter more than individual

Today Fordham is releasing the latest installments in our Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series,
offering a glimpse at what the digital future may hold for teachers and
school finance—and addressing potential pitfalls on the way to
realizing that promise. In one paper, “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction,”
Bryan and Emily Hassel argue that the growth of digital learning should
greatly alter the roles and compensation of educators—although not
necessarily at the expense of teachers—by “unbundling” their
responsibilities. In the other, “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era,”
Paul T. Hill warns that the outdated way we fund schools threatens to
cripple innovation in online education. Taken together, today’s
publications present an appealing, 21st-century approach to education—a
future threatened by our existing approaches to teaching and school
funding. Be sure to check out Flypaper over the coming days as experts post their reactions to the release; for now, download and explore the papers yourself.

This soapbox has a great view

Mike and Janie bite off big topics in this
week’s podcast—from the repeal of SB5 to racial imbalances in gifted-ed
programs to online learning. Amber wants CRPE to name names and Chris starts
subbing for the pension benefits. You’re gonna want to sit down for this.