In the last decade, we passed an important threshold—anyone can learn practically anything anywhere for free or cheap.  That milestone in human history changes the opportunity set for people around the world.   We passed another threshold in the last few years where personal digital devices (i.e., phones, tablets, netbooks) dropped below the $100 per year in cost.

The fact that more than two thirds of American kids leave high school unprepared for college and careers suggests that the system we have is obsolete.  Grouping kids by birthday and marching them through a print curriculum during a 180 day school year is just not getting the job done.  Evidence suggests that ‘reforming’ this system has limits.  And now we face the challenge of budget cuts.  The post-recession “new normal” requires that we invent new ways to do better for less.  Fortunately solutions are emerging.

I’m optimistic about the shift to personal digital learning for three reasons

1. Customization: students will learn more per hour with learning experiences at the right level, in the right mode, and at the right time.

2. Motivation: students will spend more time on task per day per day with engaging experiences that boost persistence.

3. Equalization: mobile learning will extend the school year and improve access to quality courses and instruction.

We’ve spent two decades layering technology on top of school as we know it and it didn’t make much difference.  There are three reasons this time it can be different.  First, the technology is better.  Two Bellevue-based companies exemplify advances in personalization.  Dreambox is an example of an adaptive elementary math product that, like a casual game, gets harder or easier depending on the student answers.  Learning management systems, like Global Scholar, are making it easier to create customized solutions from digital content libraries.   Two Seattle companies, Apex Learning and Giant Campus, produce engaging digital high school courseware.

The second reason is the number of scaled online learning providers.  In addition to district schools like Internet Academy, Washington students are served by schools backed by K12, Connections Academy, and Insight.  With a month’s notice, the providers currently serving Washington students could provide summer school to every kid in the state the needed or wanted to attend.  It’s the first massively scalable solution with consistently high quality.

The third reason this time can be different is the potential to use online learning to boost operating productivity.  Schools that blend the best of online and onsite learning can use staffing models that cost less, leverage master teachers, and can utilize remote specialists.

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