Diana Cieslak is a Policy Analyst at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, where she also blogs. Here is our interview with her about a new project in Washington State called iLearn.

Tell us a little about your background and the Freedom Foundation’s background. How did you two become acquainted?

My background is in History, French, and education. After getting my degree and secondary teaching credential from Hillsdale College, I moved to the Great Northwest to start my career as a middle school teacher. I joined forces with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in 2008 when fate left me without pupils, and fortune pointed me to a great organization. I worked primarily on issues relating to constitutional studies while dabbling in education projects, including publishing the first ever Report Card on Washington’s Public Schools, in partnership with the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, B.C.

I was given the task of researching and advocating online learning in the fall of 2009. That’s how the iLearn Project got started. I can honestly say I have never enjoyed work so much.

Diana Cieslak

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation is a nonprofit public policy and grassroots organization based in Olympia, Wash. Founded almost exactly 20 years ago, our mission is to advance individual liberty, free markets, and limited, accountable government. In education we focus on ensuring that every child has access to an excellent education and the freedom to select the one that works best for them. One of those options must be online learning.

We introduced our readers to the iLearn Project earlier this week, and we will be running the video intro again, but for those who don’t know, can you give us a brief description of what kind of effort this is: an organization; advocacy; reform-minded; lobbying? How do you talk about it amongst yourself and with others?

The iLearn Project is a project of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. It is an advocacy and reform-minded effort, dedicated to identifying, defending, and expanding public online learning options in Washington
state (and elsewhere).

For ed reformers, successful digital learning strategies are becoming more prevalent nationwide. Can you list a couple of things that make this online education movement successful in Washington?
What features of governance, financing, budgeting and adoption have led to uptake?

Our state’s unique needs and our pioneer-like leaders created prime conditions for online learning to take hold.

One characteristic of Washington as a state is the topographical variety we have. We have big cities, farmland, islands, families living in the suburbs, in the mountains, in boats, etc. One of our state’s most
successful online learning providers got established here because school district officials were looking for ways to meet the learning needs of kids living on islands in Puget Sound.  In some ways we are a poster
state for why America needs online learning.

Interestingly, Washington state isn’t very friendly to innovations in education. But we had one important policy in our favor: our ‘choice law.’ Students in Washington can transfer their enrollment to any school
district in the state. This enabled statewide programs to serve students from every corner.

Have you found that online education is something parents already understand readily, or is it something that requires a lot of coaching in order to see the benefits?

Many people have preconceived ideas about online learning. I have to admit that before this project, I did too. They assume there is no classroom, no personal interaction with a teacher, and that students are
isolated and can easily slip through the cracks. In reality, none of those statements is true. Fortunately, we have the advantage of being able to point to real students who can prove the opposite. Telling their stories quickly reassures parents and helps them see the benefits of online learning.

What about the teachers? What are the teachers saying to you about online education? And where are you teachers coming from — in state or out of state?

Just a couple weeks ago I had a conversation with a traditional public school teacher who had the same preconceived notions about online learning I listed above. By the end of our ten minute conversation he
wanted to know how he could get information about teaching online. Why? Because he caught a glimpse of what it would be like to be able to do what he really loves: teach.

Most of the online teachers I’ve met have been traditional school teachers before, some for many years. They rave about the platform of doing school online. It allows them to have one-on-one relationships
with their students and closely monitor their learning. Because much of the grading is automatic, they have the time to do that. It makes a tremendous difference in student achievement and consequently, in
teacher satisfaction.

Online teachers in Washington must be state certified. So whether they are native Washingtonians or not, they are state-approved.

Thinking larger scale, how does online education in K12 grow in this country? I am not thinking just in terms of numbers, but talk to me about how we can employ different strategies. What would you like to
try next that you have not experienced yet? What’s your long term goal for online education?

Online learning defies the bureaucratic conventions of the 20th Century public education model. The wheels are in motion for America to see a much needed revolution in K-12 education. The long term goal of the iLearn Project is to ensure that every child in Washington has access to a variety of online educational options as well as the freedom and information to choose the option that works best for them. Hand in hand with that, we must have policies that foster an education marketplace where innovators and educators can partner to meet student needs without being hampered by over-regulation.

For these goals to become reality, we will press forward in several areas.

First, we have to redefine public education-for policymakers and for families as a mission, not an institution. In order to succeed in fulfilling that mission, we must offer as many learning options as possible. It’s time to leave the factory model behind.

We need to continue to think creatively. Innovation doesn’t stop with having online classrooms. For many students, blended learning will be the ticket. We need to pour our energy into making blended models possible and common. Some of Washington’s ‘explorers’ are beginning to work on this.

We must also keep innovating and leveraging new technologies for greater student achievement. We are moving ahead steadily, but I’m convinced we’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible via educational technology.

Finally, we have to make sure that competition remains a part of the equation. It’s a controversial issue in the realm of education. But it’s a crucial element in making sure program and course providers are
constantly improving through results-based innovations.

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