Digital Learning

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 that of brick-and-mortar schools to assure accurate reporting. For those still unclear about exactly how to go about implementing these changes, this report presents example plans-of-action both for states without online schools and for those that offer individual online courses statewide. In just thirty-four short pages, iNACOL authors define the...


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 policy is, then, much like the Iliad, a description of the single-site war that led to a succession of odd and disparate battles across the entirety of the days’ known landscape. In other words, Chubb’s piece is a prequel to the other chapters; before we can even think about fighting...


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 his work greatly. But I publicly crossed swords with him and Emily Ayscue Hassel over school turnarounds a couple years back. So I’m no simple shill for their products. But they’ve done us all a service with their chapter on teaching in the digital...


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 look like. Assurances of privacy will also need to be established. While this paper does not provide the fertilizer, hoe, or irrigation, it does plant the seed for a more robust data-education system.

SOURCE: John Bailey, Samuel Casey Carter, Carri Schneider, and Tom Vander Ark, Digital Learning...


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 a new urban system of schools, and it is virtually devoid of tech talk.

Second, I’ve been working in government for the last two plus years, and I find that in these policymaking roles, with fires constantly raging and a surfeit of problems requiring leaders to triage instead of...

  • 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.
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 to education? These quandaries and more are addressed in this groundbreaking book by Michael J. Petrilli.

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, but it is likely that there will still be differences among state e-school policies which will warrant a corresponding standard for online schools, such as the one being developed by iNACOL. 

SOURCE: Ian Quillen, “Quality Control a Challenge for Virtual Ed.,” Education Week 32, no. 2 (2012)....


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.

Whether Americans’ mistrust of the model will fade as online learning becomes more commonplace is uncertain. For now, though, public opinion may be a significant obstacle to a “digital revolution” in K-12 education....


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 can address some of the challenges of teaching students who read, write, and do math at different levels. Blended learning deploys a classroom rotation model: students are first broken into groups and then these groups rotate through different work stations throughout the school day.

Kim presented a three-station model, in...