Digital Learning

Tom Vander Ark
Founder of

In this post, which originally appeared on the Getting Smart blog, guest blogger Tom Vander Ark analyzes Paul T. Hill’s paper, “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era,” the latest installment in Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series. Click here for his analysis of “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction.”

second paper released yesterday deals with the digital learning
implications for school finance. Author Paul Hill leads the Center for
Reinventing Public Education. His work over the last two decades has
done more to shape my views about how to design delivery of public
education than any other scholar. Like the Hassels’ paper, the
recommendations presented in School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era are well aligned with the recommendations of Digital Learning Now.

Dr. Hill lays out in some detail all the ways that the current
haphazard system is “stacked against innovation.” Rather than tinkering,
Paul suggests that states should “start from scratch and create a new
school-funding system.” He suggests a central design principal, “Make

At least the Occupiers have good fashion sense

With the closing of Zuccotti Park, Rick is back
with the podcast in full force—shorts, Birkenstocks, and all. He talks with
Mike about Fordham’s new digital-learning papers, union/school-board incest,
and our parenting problem. Amber reads from the digital-learning encyclopedia
and Chris gives corporate sponsorship an A-plus.

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

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...