External Author Name: 
Lisa Duty

One could argue that 2011 was the
year of “digital learning” in Ohio and across the nation. In September, the
White House announced its “Digital Promise” campaign, while a number of states
have been embracing initiatives and campaigns in this realm, aided and
encouraged by national groups like the Digital Learning Council and the
Foundation for Excellence in Education. Ohio’s biennial budget launched the
Ohio Digital Learning Task Force and charged it with ensuring that the state’s
“legislative environment is conducive to and supportive of the educators and
digital innovators at the heart of this transformation.”

Our two organizations –
KnowledgeWorks and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute – are committed to seeing
Ohio become a leader in the implementation of digital learning opportunities
for the state’s 1.8 million students. Ohio now stands at an important
crossroads and 2012 could be a pivotal year on whether we move forward in the
digital learning environment.

Our state has been a path-breaker
when it comes to availability of full-time e-school options that leverage
technology in learning. In fact, if all 33,000 children currently enrolled in
Ohio e-schools were in one school district they would comprise the state’s third-largest
district, just behind Columbus and Cleveland. Despite such numbers, Ohio has
yet to harness fully the potential of digital learning for all students. And,
given that digital learning can yield improvements in student achievement and
offer solutions for more efficient spending, Ohio can’t afford to wait.

In 2011 Keeping Pace, a national review of policy and practices in
digital learning, Ohio received the highest rating possible for its
availability of full-time online
learning opportunities for students due to the state’s 27 virtual
charter/community schools. Ohio e-school enrollment of 33,000 students is up 15
percent since 2008. But digital learning can and should take many different
forms—from the full-time online options of e-schools to individual students
seeking supplemental coursework to meet needs not met by their brick and mortar

New blended learning options like
Rocketship in California have shown significant academic gains for
traditionally under-served students, while Carpe Diem in Arizona improve the
student experience because they allow for customization and personalization of
learning in a way that is both “high-tech” (through the seamless integration of
appropriate technologies with teaching practices) and “high-touch” (through
meaningful and relevant learning experiences with in-person teachers to
complement online instruction).

There are districts, schools and
teachers in Ohio that are starting to show the way as well. The Dayton Regional
STEM school, for example, teaches its students Mandarin Chinese through an
online course, while the Clermont County Educational Service Center has partnered with area
districts to create a Virtual Talented and Gifted program at a time when
traditional gifted programs are being scaled back or otherwise eliminated. But, to maximize digital learning
opportunities for all its children Ohio has to develop systems for learning
that are radically different to what was crafted long ago for a place-bound,
180-day school year in which children sat in rows of desks from morning to
early afternoon.

To move Ohio from its industrial
model of education to one better suited for education in the digital age we propose
the following policies for 2012.


Remove barriers to digital learning

  • Remove teacher-student ratios and class size limits created for a
    traditional classroom.
  • Establish competency-based
    learning models that allow students to advance upon demonstrating mastery of
    knowledge or skills, not seat time.
  • Educate students and parents about their right to choose high-quality
    online courses and make available credible information about which digital courses or programs work
    best under what conditions as well as the costs of those courses or programs.

Encourage innovation

  • Provide all students in all grades access to a robust offering of
    high-quality courses from multiple high-quality providers in a competitive,
    data-driven marketplace.
  • Define in
    law blended (bricks-and-mortar combined with online instruction) schools so as
    to encourage new designs, generate pilots, and attract proven models while
    ensuring their funding.
  • Guarantee
    that funding follows the child to the individual course provider of his/her
    choice, evaluate providers based on
    student performance, and pay them in installments that incentivize completion and achievement.
  • Unbundle,
    define and enable new educator roles and challenge universities, the private
    sector and others to prepare adults to serve in new capacities.


Promote equity

  • Weight the funds
    for low-income and/or hard to serve students so as to control for the
    unintended consequences of digital providers selectively serving only students
    who are likely to demonstrate competency.
  • Power up all
    regions of Ohio by aggregating purchase request data and leveraging bulk
    discount pricing to support connectivity and device acquisition for all.


Create accountability for a new era of

  • End the archaic practice of funding seat-time, and fund course providers
    based on student performance instead of attendance.
  • Require
    student performance and student and family satisfaction data are published as
    indicators of quality of course providers.

High-quality customizable
learning options should be the rule rather than the exception. To more fully
realize this goal in 2012 and beyond, Ohio lawmakers and policy makers need to
embrace policies in education that encourage and support schools to innovate
with digital learning technologies and opportunities, while ensuring all
innovations are held accountable for performance and funded fairly and

Dr. Lisa Duty is director of external affairs at KnowledgeWorks, a social enterprise that
incubates and scales up innovative schools and education initiatives. Terry Ryan is vice president for
Ohio programs and policy at the
Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and is a
research fellow at
Hoover Institution

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