Policy and Advocacy | Spotlight

Digital Learning and School Reform Now!

A new bipartisan initiative seeks to leverage technology to challenge some long-held assumptions about education in the United States.

Two former governors--Republican Jeb Bush of Florida and Democrat Bob Wise of West Virginia--have joined forces to lead an advocacy campaign that positions digital learning not simply as a necessary component of 21st century education, but as a keystone for instituting deeper education reforms.

Bush and Wise are co-leaders of the Digital Learning Now! initiative and serve as co-chairs of the Digital Learning Council, a group of 50 "leaders in education, government, philanthropy, business, technology, and think tanks" that formulated the "10 Elements of Digital Learning" that underpin the initiative (see below).

Lest this seem yet another advocacy group whose well-meaning words flutter across speakers' podia only to fall into the recycling bin of education reform efforts, the former governors are trying to put some muscle behind their effort.

First, the initiative is expressly targeting lawmakers and policymakers, giving them an explicit set of policy-oriented actions to take in order to achieve each of the 10 elements. The two governors are using their high political profile to wield influence with these groups. "I spend about 80 percent of my time these days meeting with state officials on digital learning," reports Wise.

Moreover, the initiative links the use of technology to other education reforms, like student progress, teacher qualification, school funding, and deregulation. While some of these reforms are associated with a conservative agenda, the governors believe there is enough momentum toward fixing an education system that is widely perceived as broken. They also expect the reforms they advocate to be readily embraced by both sides of the aisle, in part because technology makes these changes not just feasible but tenable.

Wise describes his own evolution on the question of school vouchers, which are backed by Digital Learning Now! "In the past I have not supported vouchers," he admits. "But I have learned that whatever we were fighting about three years ago can be leapfrogged with technology."

He continues: "I woke up in a cold sweat about three years ago and realized there was no way we were going to meet our goals in education without a significant improvement in our application of technology. You can't get there from here."

Challenging Assumptions
The Digital Learning Now! initiative challenges long-held assumptions about how traditional schooling operates--in particular, how student progress is measured, how teachers are prepared and certified, and regulation of the private and public sectors--at a time when, the initiative contends, technology makes many of these assumptions vulnerable, if not invalid.

A closer look at the Digital Learning Now! report issued in December provides some insight into three sets of assumptions the initiative seeks to challenge and the role of technology in bringing about deeper education reforms.

10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning

Digital Learning - and School Reform - Now!

1. Student Eligibility: All students are digital learners.
2. Student Access: All students have access to high quality digital content and online courses.
3. Personalized Learning: All students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider.
4. Advancement: Students progress based on demonstrated competency.
5. Content: Digital content, instructional materials, and online and blended learning courses are of high quality.
6. Instruction: Digital instruction and teachers are high quality.
7. Providers: All students have access to multiple high quality providers.
8. Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the quality of content and instruction.
9. Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options, and innovation.
10. Delivery: Infrastructure supports digital learning.

The entire Digital Learning Now! report, as well as more about the initiative, can be found here.

Assumption Set 1: Measuring Student Progress
"Grade-level promotion has historically been dictated by birthdays, attendance and minimum achievement," the report laments. Digital learning can remove such an artificial structure and allow students to move on when they have successfully mastered the material, but only if state policies leverage technologies like digital assessment (particularly formative); learning management systems with integrated digital curriculum, content, and assessments; just-in-time data analysis tools; personalized learning environments that enable self-pacing; and 24/7 digital content that makes possible year-round enrollments.

Environments that promote authentic student progress also require new funding models over traditional models where schools "get paid when students show up, regardless of what or how much students learn or achieve." The report states that "paying for success will yield success," although it does not describe what a performance-based funding model would look like. Rather, it emphasizes that digital learning models save money, and that as "digital learning grows, economies of scale will drive costs down. Partners within states or across state lines can further increase the purchasing power" that digital learning offers.

Assumption Set 2: Teacher Preparation
The initiative also challenges the traditional ways teachers are prepared and certified. One proposed action for lawmakers and policymakers is to establish state-run "alternative certification routes, including online instruction and performance-based certification."

In addition, certification reciprocity should be available for online instructors, and teacher preparation and professional development programs should educate teachers about how to teach online. The programs should anticipate different roles based upon how instruction is delivered--traditional, blended, or online--and certification should be granted "based upon demonstrated performance."

Assumption Set 3: Regulations
The initiative's stand on the role of regulation in traditional schooling is clear: "History has proven that inputs, such as teacher certification, programmatic budgets, and textbook reviews, do not guarantee a quality education. In fact, these regulatory processes often stifle innovation and diminish quality."

The initiative argues for a voucher-based system. "Students who are eligible for public school should be eligible for publicly funded digital learning," the report declares. "Establishing criteria for eligibility, such as previous attendance in a public school, only limits, delays, and diminishes opportunities for learning."

Furthermore, any regulations that restrict access to digital learning experiences, such as class-size ratios, caps on enrollment, or residence in a particular district or country should be eliminated. The report states, "Capacity... should be the only factor in limiting access to digital learning."

According to the report, there should also be less regulation of providers of digital learning, whether they are public, not-for-profit, or private. Requirements such as the location of the home office of a provider should not determine whether or not a student can take a course. States should set "common sense standards for entry" into the digital learning market, offer "a strong system of oversight and quality control," and "foster a robust competitive environment where students can choose the provider who best meets their learning needs."

In the area of digital content, the report offers the bold pronouncement that "states should abandon the lengthy textbook adoption process and embrace the flexibility offered by digital content." Digital content should be aligned to state academic and common core standards, but not be held to a higher standard than print.

Some of the ideas advocated by Digital Learning Now! will likely meet their share of opposition in state legislatures, but in a political climate where more than half of the states have new governors--many of them looking for new ideas in education--anything is possible.