Digital Learning

Paul T. Hill

Futurists have long regaled us with predictions about technology
dramatically improving education by giving millions more students access to the
very best teachers and deploying computer-based systems that allow students to
learn at their own pace at whatever time and place works best for them. This
vision is now becoming a reality, partly because tight budgets are forcing K-12
schools to employ fewer teachers and boost the productivity of those who

Saving money is only part of technology’s educational
potential, however. More important is individualization and rapid adaptation to
what a student is learning, leading to the possibility of greater and more
consistent growth. Managing equipment, web links, and vendor contracts is also
far nimbler than reorganizing people.

Our current education-finance system doesn’t actually fund schools and certainly doesn’t fund students.


All this potential notwithstanding, however, plenty of
policy and structural barriers stand...

bonsai tree photo

Get your scissors, we'll show you how it's done.
Photo by Antonio Gonzalez Tajuelo

Like a bonsai, digital education must be
cultivated—with policies that foster its growth and trim its unruly branches. Yet,
too few are ready or willing to tend—and bend—this growing plant. Instead,
divided camps have emerged. One group—balking at the potential loss of rigor,
loss of teachers, loss of interpersonal connections associated with online
schooling—stands ready to uproot the fledgling digital-learning initiative. It
even seems to have the Wall Street Journal
convinced: A WSJ piece from this week
starts off with a vignette of an unmotivated online student who sets aside only
three hours a day for schoolwork, offers critique of the level of
student-teacher communication at Florida Virtual School, and hints at the fear of
for-profit takeover
of the digital-ed realm. In the other camp are those...

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


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....

  • 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
  • ...

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...

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...

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

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....