Digital Learning

The era of the chalkboard is over. Laptops, SMART boards, Wikis, YouTube, and Gaming are in. Is this progress or just distraction? That was the topic of conversation among over 250 educators at Fordham’s “Digital Learning: The Future of Schooling?” event yesterday. (Please check out the video replay here.)

Ohio State Superintendent Stan Heffner opened the event by laying out the problematic mix of technology, education, and kids: “Kids spend their nights in high-tech bedrooms and spend their days in low-tech classrooms.” 

“Kids spend their nights in high-tech bedrooms and spend their days in low-tech classrooms."

The remainder of the conversation focused on how to harness kids’ aptitude in technology for effective educational practices.

Fordham – and our event partners, KnowledgeWorks and the Nord Family Foundation –assembled an elite group of digital learning experts and Ohio practitioners to explore best practices and policies. The event’s first panel consisted of four national experts (U.S. Department of Education’s Karen Cator, Public Impact’s Bryan Hassel, iNACOL’s Susan Patrick, and Getting Smart’s Tom Vander Ark), each of whom emphasized the promise and inevitability of digital learning in the classroom.

A few of their recommendations included:

  • Colleges of education should equip future teachers to leverage technology in their classrooms.
  • Schools should exploit technology to create a multi-faceted student assessment system rather than rely on a single-test assessment.
  • Schools should leverage technology to enable excellent teachers to reach more students through video-fed lessons.

The second panel included...


There’s nothing intrinsically political about digital learning. It’s not a right-wing plot to co-opt education policy, nor a ploy to destroy the teacher unions. And it shouldn’t become a conservative clarion call or liberal punching bag. Digital learning’s potential will be squandered by both sides and for all students if we allow it to be caught between partisan ideologies.

Replica of the Trojan Horse in Troy, Turkey
Contrary to criticisms from the Left, digital learning isn't a Trojan Horse for union-busters.
 Photo by Frank Kovalchek.

Yet that is exactly what we’re doing today. Left-leaning pundits (including the gang at the National Education Policy Center) distance themselves from digital learning—decrying it a Trojan Horse for union-busters, little more than a ruse to kill organized labor and replace teachers with droids. They further vilify online learning as a mechanism to privatize K-12 education, citing Kaplan’s staggering non-completion and loan-default rates and the shaky academic-success rate of schools under K12’s watch (glossing over great examples of well-run for-profit online programs like Connections Academy). They feed on many people’s fear of the unknown.

For their part, right-leaning policy types have begun to shoehorn digital education into their own agendas—narrowly and blindly heralding the importance of privatization in the online sphere. They tout the efficacy of these selfsame for-profit providers without regard to their level of...


Guest blogger Eleanor Laurans, a senior principal at The Parthenon Group, co-authored "The Costs of Online Learning," a chapter in Fordham's new volume, Education Reform for the Digital Era.

“Online learning is a cheaper way to educate my kids?  That’s great—where do we sign up?!”

I don’t know many parents who would utter such a remark—do you?

Education Reform for the Digital Era

Our team’s research for our recent chapter of the Fordham book, Education Reform for the Digital Era, did in fact demonstrate that online learning can be less expensive—sometimes significantly less expensive—than traditional bricks-and-mortar schools. This is an important and exciting finding, as many schools today are striving to figure out ways to navigate budget crises. But it would be a mistake to focus solely on cost as the field of digital learning evolves. Of course there are cheaper ways to educate our kids. The critical question is, Can online learning be less expensive and better for students?

We don't know if online learning works. We hope it does. Technology has certainly been integrated into almost every other sector of our economy, so why not education? Our colleagues in higher education have certainly made progress integrating online learning, with a third of current postsecondary students taking at least one online course. There is every reason to...


Digital learning is more than the latest addition to education reformers’ to-do lists, filed along with teacher evaluations, charter schools, tenure reform, academic standards, and the like. It’s fundamentally different: For digital learning to fulfill its enormous potential, a wholesale reshaping of the reform agenda itself is required, particularly in the realms of school finance and governance. But just as online education needs those reforms if it is to flourish, so does major education reform need digital learning, which can provide valuable solutions to some of the greatest challenges in this territory—beginning with the basic obsolescence of public education’s familiar delivery system.

Today, American education has the potential to be rebooted and accelerated by digital learning. Indeed, truly boosting student achievement—as well as individualizing instruction and creating high-quality options for children and families among, within, and beyond schools—will depend to a considerable extent on how deftly we exploit this potential, both in its pure form (full-time online instruction) and in various “blended” combinations of digital and flesh-and-blood instruction.

Road closed
Serious obstacles block the road to realizing digital learning's potential.
Photo by Brad Folkens

Making the most of these remarkable opportunities, however, hinges on our willingness—and capacity—to alter a host of ingrained practices. Fordham’s new volume, Education Reform for the Digital Era, offers a guide to that alteration, beginning with clarity...


Guest blogger John E. Chubb is interim CEO of Education Sector and author of "Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning," a chapter in Fordham's new volume, Education Reform for the Digital Era.

Education Reform for the Digital Era

Back in the day, a prominent education reformer asked me to send him a fax rather than an email. Asked why, he replied, only half jokingly, “if God had wanted us to use email he would not have invented the fax machine!” Reflecting on the remark I always chuckle, but then think: how prophetic. Technology has come slowly to K-12 education. Our schools and classrooms are not all that different from those of fifty years ago or longer. While most every industry has adopted new information technologies and often been transformed in the process, schools really have not.

Some of the pace must be attributed to the perspective unwittingly expressed by my reformer friend. Schools are the way they are for good reason. Students require the attention of caring adults. Students are precious and vulnerable and not to be put at risk by unproven innovations. Schools, classrooms, and teachers perform roles that have evolved over centuries. God, if you will, would not have given us schools in their current form were there not good reason.

Schools are governed by...

Today Fordham is releasing a new volume explaining how the U.S. education system must change in order to realize the potential of digital learning. Education Reform for the Digital Era argues that major overhauls of school finance, governance, and accountability are needed if on-line education is to live up to its potential.

Education Reform for the Digital Era

The policy blunders that hamstrung the charter-school movement as it grew can be avoided this time if policymakers and education leaders demonstrate foresight and boldness now. To do so, explain editors Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniela Fairchild, those leaders must overcome entrenched interests, public education’s resistance to change, and the system’s basic structures for financing and governing.

The new book provides estimates of the costs—and savings—for online learning models, as well as targeted chapters on how to overhaul a system that has been leapfrogged by advances in technology. These address:

  • “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction,” by Bryan C. and Emily Ayscue Hassel;
  • "Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Solutions," by Frederick M. Hess;
  • "The Costs of Online Learning," Tamara Butler Battaglino, Matt Haldeman, and Eleanor Laurans;
  • "School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era," by Paul T. Hill; and
  • "Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning," by John E. Chubb.

Download the full volume (as a pdf or...


The full video from yesterday's panel discussion is now available online. Whether you attended in-person, joined the conversation online, or missed it altogether, you can watch the replay of the lively converstation on the future of digital learning (or read the recap from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

Be sure to mark your calendars for the release of Fordham's digital learning volume, "Education Reform for the Digital Era," available for download April 25, and continue the conversation by registering for "Digital Learning: The Future of Schooling?" That discussion, featuring an all-star lineup of policymakers, experts, and administrators, will be streamed live from Columbus, Ohio on Fordham's website from 1 to 4 p.m. EDT on May 17.

Can we be smarter about taking high-quality online and blended schools to scale—and to educational success? Yes, says this volume, as it addresses such thorny policy issues as quality control, staffing, funding, and governance for the digital sector. Read on to learn more.