Digital Learning

This recent Pew study—the first in a series of three on the role of technology in the classroom—investigates how the Internet has affected middle school and high school students’ research skills and strategies. While this survey of 2,500 AP and National Writing Project teachers (presumably those in the most advanced classrooms) does offer a peek into this complicated issue, the window remains opaque: Teachers report complex and contradictory views on how technology has shaped student research. Seventy-seven percent believe that digital technology has had a “mostly positive effect in the classroom,” while 64 percent opine that “technology does more to distract students than help them.” Specific concerns raised by teachers include students’ dependence on search engines (94 percent report that their pupils use Google to conduct research, while only 17 percent report the use of online databases), inability to judge the quality and veracity of information, and perceived loss of critical-thinking skills. But these deficits, the authors suggest, may reflect educators’ and administrators’ own inability to reshape the learning environment to suit today’s connected world—a point with larger implications for teacher training for the modern classroom.

Kristen Purcell et al., How Teens Do Research in the Digital World (Washington,...

One of the many reasons I’m a fan of TBFI is that it conducts two types of policy research that are in short supply. The first, which I will talk about today, is in-the-weeds analyses of subjects that others have glossed over. (The second, studies on subjects we didn’t even realize were important, will be discussed in a future post.)

TBFI's latest in-the-weeds analysis is on teacher-union strength; it goes deeper and reveals far more than the conventional wisdom.

Lots of people talk about the value of tough standards; heck, the “transformative nature” of Common Core has become something between a ubiquitous talking point and Gospel for the reform community. But many of those proselytizing, unfortunately, can’t tell you a whit about what’s actually in these supposedly sacred texts. 

Well, TBFI gets into the weeds of standards; they’ve been doing this for ages, even before Common Core was conceived and birthed (yes, it’s true, academic-content standards existed before CC!). In recent months, they’ve analyzed the rigormeaning, and cost of CC, shedding much light on an important but under-investigated matter.

They’ve done similar digging in on the use of school funds and tech advancements—issues that, like CC, have been given a cursory and...

Digital learning has the potential to revitalize American public education, providing personalized instruction to millions of students. Which doesn’t mean it will cause them to learn much. This report from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) properly observes that today’s assessment systems cannot provide the data necessary to track the efficacy of online-learning programs. This creates two potential scenarios, both problematic: Digital education could either 1) become ubiquitous but not transformative, as effective programs are not scaled up nor shoddy programs shuttered or 2) be weakly adopted as states restrict options for programs that are unproven. To remedy this situation, iNACOL points to five measures that should be used to evaluate online programs: proficiency levels, individual student growth, graduation rates, college and career readiness (though the authors fail to fully define the term), and reduction of the achievement gap. The authors then offer a number of recommendations for how to operationalize these measures. Among them: Online-education programs need common assessments across most course subjects (and end-of-course exams for all); state data systems must be updated to meet the challenge of collecting, reporting, and passing data between schools and the state; and online-school data should be disaggregated from...

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,...