Former Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise, together with Disrupting Class co-author Michael Horn (a multi-time commentator on this blog), have released a new call to arms for Digital Learning Now.    Organized by the Digital Learning Council, the project has its own website, and a list of ten elements of High Quality Digital education on which it says it will grade states annually.

While I respect that Bush and Wise probably oversaw the politics of the effort, I am going to draw the inference that Horn is the key author of the report, because it seems so aligned with what I have observed Horn writing about the past few years.     Horn’s analysis and insights are multifaceted, both an “is” and an “ought” : this digital revolution is happening whether we like it or not, and because it is, let’s try to steer this wave the way it best ought to happen.

Horn uses as his core premise the claim that “by 2019 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online whether in schools or at a distance.”   Whether or not he is accurate in the specific claim, it is hard to argue with the idea that online learning will continue to grow in significance; what is at stake, however, is whether online learning will be a discount, cheapskate alternative to quality classroom learning, or whether it will align itself with our best understandings of  quality learning such that digital teaching improves student achievement.

Several of the “ten elements” which I discuss below, are excellent suggestions for improving the quality of student learning.  But before I discuss the particulars, there are several larger reactions to offer:

At times the document seems to focus too narrowly to “on-line courses,”  but I am grateful for the recognition of the value of “on-line content.”   I think this means, as it ought to,  that we must support our students as digital learners, whether when enrolled in online courses or in traditional courses.  On-line learning happens in classroom-situated classes also, and we need argument and advocacy for all students to be supported as digital learners no matter how the class is structured.    It is terrific to read, in the tenth element, these two recommendations:

  • State ensures high-speed broadband Internet access for public school teachers and students.
  • State ensures all public school students and teachers have Internet access devices.

Although there are several recommendations for better support for teacher professional development, and better preparation in colleges of ed, it is disappointing to read into these recommendations too much of a hierarchical, expert to amateur, worldview.   The web breaks down those hierarchies and creates instead horizontal and intertwined networks, and the report could have better reflected this by supporting the growth and development of our educators in peer-to-peer professional online networks.    In parallel, there could have been a call for support for students to have more opportunity for participation in national and global networks of students communicating with each other their research and resources in collaborative ways.

It is unfortunate too that the report doesn’t do more to convey the value of “blended learning,” and how online learning can revolutionize classroom learning.   I think the hybrid opportunities are so exciting and the most important and meaningful transformations will happen at the crossroads of the conventional and the digital, such as the reverse instruction/flipped classroom model.   But there is little reference in this report to these type of initiatives.

Finally, there seems to be missing an appreciation for the value of the human and personal community which has always been a central crux of learning.    Shouldn’t there be recommendations that states and districts support on-line learners with opportunities and programs for athletics, for performing arts, for in-person mentoring, coaching, and counseling?     Don’t we have to strive for a balance where we harness the best of the digital tools with the best of traditional practices, in which caring and inspirational adults can elicit the best efforts and warmly provide the best counsel?   I know Michael Horn knows, from his recent ReThinking Student Motivation paper (my post about it), that students “hire” school to socialize with peers, and where are the recommendations that capture and draw upon that central insight?

Some comments on particular elements:

1. Student Eligibility: All students are digital learners. This is an excellent place to start; they are indeed, and our schools need to embrace, not resist this.

2. Student Access: All students have access to high quality digital content and online courses. A thesis I, of course, endorse, but the devil here may be in the details.  I like the recommendation that states require an on-line course completion for high school graduation; online learning will most certainly be a core component of every career our students enter, and why not offer them a bit of experience and preparation for that?

But, I am simply confused by the policy recommendation “States not restrict access to high quality digital content and online courses with policies such as class size ratios and caps on enrollment or budget.”  What is the idea here?  Are we going to allow on-line teachers to teach to hundreds of students at once (no cap on class-size ratios), and thereby dramatically impede the opportunity for students to get the feedback and counseling they require?   In a time of financial stress and budget cuts, does this open the floodgates to school districts shuffling learning off to discounted bulk/volume teaching? This needs clarification.

3. Personalized Learning: All students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider. We wall want students to pursue their passions; we want them to have the whole world at their fingertips and to have an ability to learn what is meaningful to them, and digital learning opens this up.    This section argues there states “do not limit the number credits earned online.”  I understand why, but this is a place where we have to ask: should we advocate alongside this idea for the value of school-site situated learning too.

4. Advancement: Students progress based on demonstrated competency. Yes.   Ultimately this is a matter of respect: we should respect students’ proficiencies and challenge them to spend their time learning what they need to be learning, not what their age-group needs to be learning.   On-line learning makes this approach much more manageable in logistics.  However, there is still a powerful need for kids to socialize with their age peers, and reconciling these two things is a goal not to lose sight of.

5. Content: Digital content, instructional materials, and online and blended learning courses are high quality. Hard to argue with this; I am glad to see here the reference to “blended courses” which seem to overlooked in other places here.    “Blended learning,” a form of using online course-work within a conventional classroom course, is a way to reconcile the best of each model, and addresses several of my concerns about this overall initiative.  Yet this is the only section in which blended learning gets even a nominal mention.

6. Instruction: Digital instruction and teachers are high quality. Yes, but as above, add recommendations for horizontal professional online networks for professional growth.

7.  Providers: All students have access to multiple high quality providers. On the face of it, this sounds great, and as a private/independent/nonprofit educator myself, I appreciate the recommendation that public school students be provided wide-ranging opportunities for online learning by a diversity of online learning providers, including nonprofit/non-state schools.   I think there is high quality online learning coming from private, for profit enterprises which needs to be recognized, but I also know, like many others, that allowing for-profit, private enterprises to provide educational services is complex and fraught with contradictions.

8. Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the quality of content and instruction. I think data should about learning should be collected and valued for evaluating educational effectiveness, and I am especially excited about the power of digital, computer adaptive assessment of learning.   It is good to see that such data should play only a part, not the whole, of measuring effectiveness; we need to be wary of over-interpreting such data beyond its true significance.

9. Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options and innovation.

10. Delivery: Infrastructure supports digital learning. This is the most important and far-reaching section; it is where the recommendations launch up and beyond what seems, in places above, too narrowly about on-line course programming.   Here are the three key recommendations:

  • State is replacing textbooks with digital content, including interactive and adaptive multimedia.
  • State ensures high-speed broadband Internet access for public school teachers and students.
  • State ensures all public school students and teachers have Internet access devices.

Michael Horn is writing about the report on his own blog and for a variety of other publications.   I believe he is passionate and sincere in his desire to use the digital revolution to improve learning:

all children can have an education that allows them to maximize their human potential and pursue their loftiest dreams. The pathway to realizing that vision is digital learning, as it can allow us to create a system that personalizes for students’ different learning needs… [We} aim to accelerate this shift from our current analog system to a student-centric, digital one–by working with state leaders and policymakers…

And I believe that as it grows, the technology worldwide will increasingly allow us to personalize learning with great results. But whether this will result in this transformation of the country’s public education system into a student-centric one that is of higher quality from its present monolithic, factory-model condition is not certain.  The big danger is that we simply layer technology over the traditional system, which would then co-opt it. That wouldn’t produce the shift we need.

I am sorry though that he concludes this piece with the idea that we can save money doing so (“This is a proposal that is not in search of more funds; ultimately there are many reasons to believe this will cost less money”):

  • because I think that American education is desperately under-funded at present,
  • because I think that a genuine digital revolution is our schools will take real financial investment,
  • and because the statement allows his advocacy to be perceived as just a dodge behind which those who are consistently seeking to starve American public education can advance their cause.   Our children’s quality education is the best investment we can make in securing our national future, and we need to not suggest in any circle that we should cut that investment.