Budgeting smartly for digital success

Paul Teske

Guest blogger Paul Teske is dean and University of Colorado
Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the
University of Colorado Denver.  In this post, originally published at EdNews Colorado, he reflects on the future of digital learning and Paul T. Hill’s recent paper in Fordham’s
Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series, “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era.”

For decades, some education pundits have predicted that technology
would radically alter and improve the delivery of educational services.
Radio, Ed TV, and computers in classrooms were all examples that were
highly touted in their time. And, while none of these has really had
much impact on student learning, a cottage industry has also developed
within academia to explain why – no changes to teaching approaches, use
of a mass media, poor content, lack of training, etc.

(I should note that I’m old enough to remember film-strips as a major
technology. In the exurban NYC town in which I grew up, teachers
sometimes engaged in strikes, despite a state law against it, and we
students would come to school anyway, to get enough days in to fully
meet state regulations for funding. We would wave to our striking
teachers and head into class rooms to watch educational film strips, in
the absence of real instructors).

Now, with widespread digital access and technologies, we may well be
on the cusp of a technological change in education that will be
meaningful. Many smart people believe this. In part this is because
content has improved and Internet applications allow for ways for
teachers to achieve real student differentiation and narrow-casting, not
mass media approaches and broad-casting.

A bunch of recent books and articles argue that this will transform education. The most interesting of these include Disrupting Class (2008) by Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn, and Liberating Learning (2009) by Terry Moe and John Chubb.

You don’t have to go to too many education events or hot lunches to
hear about interesting technological applications, whether in Denver
like DSST, or around the nation, with examples like School of One,
Rocketship, and Carpe Diem.

As we engage in considerable online learning in higher education (and
my own school was quite early to these efforts and we do a great deal
of it), there are still reasons to have concerns about quality and
other issues. Recent examinations of K-12 online learning in Colorado
have shown some real problems and there are some disappointing models
as well. Clearly, we need new ways to assess and think about online
learning.

Hoping to inform this discussion, the
Fordham Institute, led by Checker Finn, has recently released three
reports on digital learning collectively called “Creating Sound Policy
for Digital Learning.” The three reports include one on quality control
by Rick Hess, one on teachers by Bryan Hassell, and a new one on
budgeting by Paul Hill (disclosure: my friend and a colleague at CRPE).

Hill’s report is called “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era.”

Hill addresses the barriers that today’s school finance regulations
create for flexible, digital learning. He then suggests the elements of a
financial system that would need to be in place for a state to
properly encourage online learning – funding education not students,
money that moves with students, paying for unconventional forms of
education, and withholding funding for unsuccessful program without
chilling innovation.

The most interesting idea is an “educational backpack” that has
flexible funding that moves around with the student. This might allow
the per pupil funding to be divided – with some of it going to the main
educational institution of choice, but other parts of it being used for
supplemental services or tutoring, for language courses through
Rosetta Stone or similar provider, and other alternatives. In some
ways, this could take choice a step further, to the program level.

As always, Hill is wise, insightful, and also thoughtful about the
full implications of what he proposes. Indeed, I am very glad he has a
full section on oversight. While entrepreneurial efforts are important,
they should not get a free pass just because they fall into the
innovation category. The recent history of poorly regulated private,
for-profit online higher education shows that without proper oversight a
lot of bad education, financial waste, and/or fraud can and will
happen.

So, perhaps we are now on the cusp of a real revolution in education,
via online, digital platforms. It remains to be seen whether this will
be more revolutionary, or more disruptive, than Johannes Gutenberg’s
printing press that made books affordable to the masses. While the
technological edutopia perspective is understandable, it surely won’t
materialize without smart policies in place.

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