Digital Learning


Textbooks won't go extinct anytime soon.
Photo by meedanphotos

Last week, Apple launched two programs
for the iPad that it hopes will transform the textbook industry in the same way
the iPod transformed the music industry. The first, iBooks 2, will make
media-rich electronic textbooks available for purchase on the iPad at a
fraction of the cost of a hard-copy text. (Currently, all titles are available
for $14.99 or less.) The second, iBooks Author, allows anyone to create
textbooks for free using an iMac, and to publish them to iBooks immediately.

There were many skeptics who, when the
iPod was launched a decade ago, believed it would have only a negligible impact
on the way people listened to music. Helping those folks eat their words has
become something of a cottage industry on the web. Just yesterday, tech blogger
and Apple enthusiast John Gruber gleefully
all of the people who underestimated the appeal of the...

Adam Emerson

have generally embraced the premise that choice is good in education, but we
are engaged in a long-lasting war over how to deliver it. This war has many
fronts: We fight over the expansion of charter schools and talk past each other
on questions of their freedom and funding; we enhance the growth of online
education while doing little to change a model of public school governance that
remains rooted in the 19th century; we linger over the political
divide that insists on drawing lines separating “public” and “private,” even as
those words have become less relevant in evolving education systems that defy
traditional labels.

How do we
categorize, or properly finance, the smorgasbord of options available to
today’s student?

How do we
categorize, or properly finance, the smorgasbord of options available to
today’s student? And how do we enhance the debate to rethink how we administer
a public education? The resistance to customized forms of schooling is not new.
Many a well-meaning principal and superintendent fought back-to-basics schools
and International Baccalaureate programs and gifted education for fear they

In this post, guest blogger Bill Tucker, managing director of Education Sector, responds to "The Costs of Online Learning," a paper released today as part of Fordham's Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series.

The latest in Fordham’s digital learning policy series
tackles the tricky question of cost. And while the paper cannot offer
definitive answers for policymakers and school leaders, it does provide a
helpful primer on the overall economics of online and blended learning.

The top-line findings, that blended learning models cost an
estimated $8,900 per pupil (+/- 15%) and fully online schools cost $6,400 (+/-
20%), will surely be repeated in statehouse policy battles throughout the
country. But, those who actually read the short brief will quickly realize that
the authors have bent over backwards to caveat their findings in multiple ways.
The most important of these caveats? The author’s cost figures reflect
estimates of what online and blended schools are currently spending, rather
than what they should be spending. In other words, since we have little
understanding of how spending relates to...

The latest installment of the Fordham Institute’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning  series investigates one of the more controversial aspects of digital learning: How much does it cost? In this paper, the Parthenon Group uses interviews with more than fifty vendors and online-schooling experts to estimate today's average per-pupil cost for a variety of schooling models, traditional and online, and presents a nuanced analysis of the important variance in cost between different school designs. These ranges—from $5,100 to $7,700 for full-time virtual schools, and $7,600 to $10,200 for the blended version—highlight both the potential for low-cost online schooling and the need for better data on costs and outcomes in order for policymakers to reach confident conclusions related to the productivity and efficiency of these promising new models.   Download "The Costs of Online Learning" to learn more.

In this first of six papers on digital learning commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Frederick M. Hess explores the challenges of quality control. As he notes, “one of the great advantages of online learning is that it makes ‘unbundling’ school provision possible—that is, it allows children to be served by providers from almost anywhere, in new and more customized ways.  But taking advantage of all the opportunities online learning offers means that there is no longer one conventional “school” to hold accountable. Instead, students in a given building or district may be taking courses (or just sections of courses) from a variety of providers, each with varying approaches to technology, instruction, mastery, and so forth….Finding ways to define, monitor, and police quality in this brave new world is one of the central challenges in realizing the potential of digital learning.”

Addressing this challenge is the purpose of Hess’s groundbreaking contribution. Use the link to the right to download the paper.

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 a new paper, “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction,” Public Impact’s Bryan and Emily Hassel “propose that digital education needs excellent...

Everyone’s a winner!

The podcast kicks off the new year in style, with special guest commentary from Diane Ravitch on what 2012 will bring. Amber sees charter-school closures as a glass half empty and Chris loves up some celebrations.

Amber's Research Minute Poll

Help us name Amber's weekly poll, pop quiz, whatever you want to call it. Leave a comment with your idea. Extra points given for using Amber's name!

Chris Irvine's What's Up With That?

The controversial Cathedral High School touchdown Chris talks about in this week's episode.

The controversy over the recent New York Times front-page slam of K12 Inc. was ostensibly about the company’s inability to deliver online education (see CEO Ron Packard’s reply here), but one of the more interesting parts of the ensuing debate was not about computers and education but about delivering education for profit – which is what Packard’s company does. (Full disclosure: I have done some editing work for K12.)

This morning Walt Gardner, who writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week, penned a letter to the Times editor that seems to sum up the anti-profit school of thought pretty well:

Agora Cyber Charter School [the K12 school that was the Times’ whipping post] serves as an instructive case study of what happens when schools are run like businesses. The profit motive always assures that the education of students takes a back seat to the enrichment of investors.

Nevertheless, free market advocates have managed to exploit the frustration and anger felt by taxpayers over the glacial progress of traditional public schools to advance their agenda. In the end, it will become clear that it’s impossible to provide a quality education and show a profit at

Paul Teske
Dean and University of Colorado Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver

Guest blogger Paul Teske is dean and University of Colorado
Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the
University of Colorado Denver.  In this post, originally published at EdNews Colorado, he reflects on the future of digital learning and Paul T. Hill’s recent paper in Fordham’s
Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series, “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era.”

For decades, some education pundits have predicted that technology
would radically alter and improve the delivery of educational services.
Radio, Ed TV, and computers in classrooms were all examples that were
highly touted in their time. And, while none of these has really had
much impact on student learning, a cottage industry has also developed
within academia to explain why – no changes to teaching approaches, use
of a mass media, poor content, lack of training, etc.

(I should note that I’m old enough to remember film-strips as a major
technology. In the exurban NYC town in which I grew up, teachers
sometimes engaged in strikes, despite a state law against it, and we
students would come to school anyway, to get enough days in...

The central problem besetting K-12 education in the United
States today is still—as for almost thirty years now—that far too few of our
kids are learning nearly enough for their own or the nation’s good. And the
gains we’ve made, though well worth making, have been meager (and largely
confined to math), are trumped by gains in other countries, and evaporate by
the end of high school.

From where I sit, the basic strategies
aren’t ill-conceived. Rather, they’ve been stumped, stymied, and
constrained by formidable barriers that are more or less built into the
K-12 system as we know it.

This much everybody knows. But unless we want to live out
the classic definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over again with the
expectation that it will produce a different result”), we need to focus
laser-like on the barriers that keep us from making major-league gains. If we
don’t break through (or circumnavigate) these barriers, academic achievement
will remain stagnant.

The barriers I’m talking about are not cultural issues,
parenting issues, demographic issues, or other macro-influences on educational
achievement. Those are all plenty...