Digital Learning

Whether you consider today’s New York Times article on a “hit piece” (Tom Vander Ark) or a “blockbuster” (Dana Goldstein), there’s little doubt that it will have a long-term impact on the debate around digital learning. Polls show
that the public and parents are leery of cyber schools, and this kind
of media attention (sure to be mimicked in local papers) will only make
them more so.

But just as these criticisms aren’t going away, neither is online
learning itself. The genie is out of the bottle. So how can we go about
drafting policies that will push digital learning in the direction of

This is something we at Fordham are thinking a lot about, and we’ve published three papers (so far) in our series, Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning: Rick Hess on quality control; Paul Hill on funding; and Bryan and Emily Hassel on teachers. And in January, we’ll publish an analysis by the Parthenon Group of what high-quality fulltime online learning really costs.

I’ll leave it to others to rebut the Times’ extremely
selective use of data, expert opinion, and...

Be sure to check out the latest edition of Education Week, featuring a commentary by Paul T. Hill
on the need for school funding reform in order to unlock digital
learning’s full potential. The Center on Reinventing Public Education
director sums up many of his ideas from last month’s “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era” paper, part of Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning
series, which outlined the need for a streamlined funding model where
money follows students and encourages edtech innovation. If the EdWeek essay piques your interest, download the full paper and read more by Hill from last week’s Rethinking Education Governance conference....

“Selling Schools Out: the Scam of Virtual Education Reform.” The headline gracing the cover of the Nation’s December 5 edition does a pretty good job conveying the nuance and objectivity to be found in its expose of the digital learning landscape,
a sprawling indictment of online schooling in general. Author Lee Fang
describes a corrupt alliance of think tanks, politicians, lobbyists, and
private companies intent on recklessly promoting an unproven education
model for corporate gain. Their coordinated efforts, to hear Fang tell
it, have resulted in a “legislative juggernaut” that loosened
restrictions on virtual schooling in thirteen states in 2011 alone,
triggering a “gold rush of investors clamoring to get a piece of the
K-12 education market.”

It’s certainly an entertaining read, complete with union busting,
multiple “infamous” operatives, online smear sites, and an
arch-villain—the “Man Behind the Virtual Curtain”—Jeb Bush. Yet for all
its supposedly incriminating audio files and closed-door meetings, the Nation piece is more about ideology than scandal. Education Sector’s Bill Tucker took Fang to task
for omitting and mischaracterizing public sector innovation in online
schooling to...

Education technology is a hot sector for innovative entrepreneurs and ambitious investors. While interest and investment in digital education skyrocket, though, the inflexibility of the existing school funding system may stifle its potential—at least according to Paul T. Hill in “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era,” the latest installment in Fordham’s  Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series. As Hill writes,

Our system doesn’t fund schools, and certainly doesn’t fund students. 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 chosen by their parents, teachers, or themselves.

The paper, released Wednesday, argues that unlocking the vast potential of digital learning requires streamlining funding into a “backpack” model where dollars follow individual students, allowing families to select from a robust and diverse range of digital and traditional educational options. Download the paper to find out more, and explore expertsreactions on Flypaper....

Paul T. Hill
director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education

Guest blogger Paul T. Hill is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the author of a recent paper in Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series, “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era.”

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 them 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 remain.

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 re-organizing people.

All this potential notwithstanding, however, plenty of policy and
structural barriers stand in the way of widespread...

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.

Yesterday, the Fordham Institute released the latest papers in its Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series, including Bryan and Emily Hassel’s “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction.” 
Digital learning is often portrayed as a threat to the teaching
profession, swapping teachers for computers in order to cut budgets. 
The reality, the authors argue, will be both more complicated and
rewarding for educators:

We have little doubt that the digital future will
transform education.  But rather than an either-or decision between
technology and teachers, we propose that digital education needs
excellent teachers and that the teaching profession needs digital

Download the paper to learn more, and keep an eye out for expert reactions on Flypaper over the next few days....

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

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