Digital Learning

After reading her third or fourth chapter in the TBFI volume on digital learning, a reader can be forgiven for feeling exhausted and bewildered.

There’s been so much hype about online learning and so many promises of revolutionary impact that entirely too little attention has been given to the staggering obstacles standing between today’s delivery system and that envisioned by technology’s strongest proponents.

Apple toss

This TBFI volume is educational for sure and endlessly fascinating, but, above all else, it is cold-turkey sobering. I previously posted on the papers associated with accountability and educator effectiveness, which described in great detail how our current systems of assessing schools and preparing and evaluating educators are wholly unsuited to the era we’re supposedly entering. While those authors had some valuable suggested courses of action, they most certainly provided no map to carefully guide us past the Sirens and between the Scylla and Charybdis of this odyssey.

John Chubb’s chapter on governance and public...

Arguably the biggest challenge to moving to digital learning is ensuring that educators are prepared for this massive shift in teaching and learning. Many have argued that our current teacher prep programs don’t do such a great job of getting new teachers ready for today’s schools; given that, it’s hard to believe they are well-positioned to prepare future educators for blended learning, flipped classrooms, personalized instruction, constant data use, and so on.

Seeing districts struggle mightily over Section C of RTT-D, where these issues come to the forefront, has made me realize just how enormous a problem this is; I imagine just about every district in America is going to have to face some variation of this problem over the next five to ten years. (Full disclosure: I’ve been providing advice to a number of districts on their RTT-D applications.)

Apple toss

Well, thank goodness for TBFI’s volume on digital learning!

I consider Bryan Hassel a friend, and I admire...

Current technological deficiencies and restrictions on data sharing limit teachers’ access to student data, leaving them inadequately prepared to build off individual students’ strengths and nurture their weaknesses. So argues this paper—the second in a useful series from Digital Learning Now!—which introduces the notion of “backpack data”: detailed, personalized digital records that follow a child between multiple districts, service providers, and even states. The ace team of John Bailey, Samuel Casey Carter, Carri Schneider, and Tom Vander Ark recommend a two-part expansion of student data: The Data Backpack would act as one common official transcript, tracking many more indicators (like prior years’ test scores, attendance, and behavior reports) than current transcripts. The Learning Profile, a customizable data tracker for more qualitative points like students’ goals and teachers’ comments, would supplement. Bold ideas but, as the authors admit, not yet actionable: Technical, legal, and definitional challenges remain (though this paper helps resolve the last issue). Before Data Backpacks and Learning Profiles can be used, policymakers must determine how the data will be stored, who the official steward of the data is, and what the actual collection and system will...

With all of the talk about online and blended learning and the U.S. Education Department’s focus on “individualized” (or “personalized”) learning in the Race to the Top-District competition, which is really a stalking horse for pushing more technology into our schools, you’re likely to see me writing more and more about this broad subject in the days to come.

Apple toss
How best to regulate digital learning is a question worthy of Newton.
Photo by mollyali.

But the truth is I’ve been a backbencher in the edtech-promotion business over the last several years for at least three reasons. The first is that I think systems (the combination of policy frameworks, collections of practices and habits, rules on governance, beliefs and biases manifested as day-to-day behaviors, etc.) are far more important than the stuff that gets put into systems, including technology and (dare I say it ?!) human capital. For example, I’ve written a book (a labor of love to be released October 16!) about creating...

  • Students in some Ohio districts will not be turning their cell phones on vibrate anymore as schools experiment with new policies that allow the use of technology in “green zones” such as hallways and lunch rooms. Classroom use of electronics is at the teacher’s discretion, with some classes using laptops to take notes and camera phones to photograph science experiments.
  • Good teachers never stop learning. Instructors at New Albany High School are taking graduate courses to develop blended learning curriculum for their students. The course quality will be assessed based on student performance during the second half of the school year.
  • Parents of truant students attended motivational sessions as opposed to paying fines, as part of an effort between the Cleveland Municipal Court and the Juvenile Court. The program, Redirecting Our Curfew Kids (ROCK) was intended to inform parents of the dangers of truancy and missing curfew.
  • Cincinnati Public Schools students have an exciting new after-school option. WordPlay, designed to meet urban community needs, provides an inspirational and fun place for kids to do projects, read, or get homework help.



Many of today’s parents yearn to live in or near the lively, culturally vibrant heart of the city—in diverse, walkable neighborhoods full of music and theater, accessible to museums and stores, awash in ethnic eateries, and radiating a true sense of community. This is a major shift from recent generations that saw middle class families trading urban centers for suburbs with lawns, malls, parks, and good schools.

But good schools still matter. And standing in the way of many parents’ urban aspirations is the question: Will the public schools in the city provide a strong education for my kids?

To be sure, lots of parents favor sending their sons and daughters to diverse schools with children from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. But can such schools successfully meet the educational needs of all those different kids? How do middle class children fare in these environments? Is there enough challenge and stimulation in schools that also struggle to help poor and immigrant children reach basic standards? Is there too much focus on test scores? And why is it so hard to find diverse public schools with a progressive, child-centered approach...

Ohio is on the precipice of a new era of learning that is available for its K-12 students. In 2005, the general assembly imposed a moratorium on internet-based community schools, but it will end on January 1, 2013. House Bill 153 permits five new internet-based community schools to open ever year. The moratorium was intended to provide time for Ohio to develop accountability standards in order to evaluate the effectiveness of online community schools.

An article – in the first report released by Education Week in a three part series regarding e-learning – broaches concerns regarding quality standards for virtual education. The author contends that because each state has their own unique e-school policy, there is not a universal set of standards applicable for all states.

Despite these disparate accountability standards, the California Learning Resource Network and the Texas Virtual School Network partnered to write the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) National Standards for Quality Online Courses. The document provides standards for online courses regarding their content, instructional design, student assessment, technology, and course evaluation and support.

The implementation of the Common Core standards may provide more uniformity for academic standards for online community schools,...

Online learning has plenty of boosters, from statehouses to edtech startups, but those advocates may find the public far from enthusiastic about the expansion of virtual education. Fordham’s latest report, How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education, details the findings of a nationally representative survey of the public, including that Americans remain deeply divided on the merits of online learning (something that previous research has also shown).

Blended learning, which combines online instruction with face-to-face instruction, split respondents: Forty-two percent favored the expansion of the model while 46 percent said that schools should stay away from blended classes. The public was also skeptical of virtual schools, where students take some or all of their classes online and have an online teacher. Only 21 percent described such schools as a “good idea,” while 32 percent labeled them a “bad idea.” Forty percent of those surveyed thought virtual schools were a “good option, but only for students who have difficulty in traditional schools.” Perhaps surprisingly, parents who had experience with virtual schools were not more supportive of them than the general public: Only about a fifth of both groups supported the model.


Innovation: It’s an education reform cliché. But what is innovation, really?

Ask most people about innovation and they’ll probably talk about products—airplanes, laptops, smartphones. But innovation also refers to process. That’s what blended learning is for education. It turns the process of teaching upside down.

Today, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in partnership with Knowledge Works and Reynoldsburg School District, welcomed Anthony Kim, founder and CEO of Education Elements, to Ohio. Founded in 2010, Education Elements is a California-based company that advises schools on how to adopt and implement blended learning models. Education Elements has assisted charters (KIPP Los Angeles), traditional public school districts (Houston Independent School District), and parochial schools (Mission Dolores Academy in San Francisco).

Anthony Kim, founder and CEO of Education Elements

Kim began the conversation with an audience that included superintendents, teachers, lawmakers, and state board members by describing his blended learning model. According to Kim, blended learning has three goals:

  • To differentiate teaching by breaking the classroom into smaller groups
  • To increase the collection and use of student achievement data to improve teaching
  • To create more efficient schools

How does blended learning achieve these goals?

First, blended learning...

The Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Affordable Care Act has many of us talking about checks and balances, so let’s use this teachable moment to examine how separate branches of North Carolina’s government have left its first virtual charter school in limbo.

The North Carolina Board of Education simply ignored a law it didn’t like.

A Wake County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that the North Carolina Virtual Academy can’t open this fall because the state’s Board of Education never said it could. The academy had won preliminary approval from the county school board where it would have been based, but Judge Abraham Penn said that ultimate approval lies with the state board.

The problem—one that even Judge Penn acknowledges—is that the state board refused to even consider the academy’s legitimate application. And this is where governance in the Tar Heel State breaks down.

When North Carolina’s 2011 legislative session ended in the summer of that year, lawmakers lifted the cap on the number of charter schools in the state and allowed for the creation of virtual charters. Months later, in October 2011, state Board of Education Chairman William Harrison told his colleagues, without asking for a vote,...