By: Robyn Bagley

Utah Connections Academy (UCA) Inaugural Graduating Class of 2012 – eight eager faces, eyes sparkling with a sense of pride and accomplishment – for many of them an accomplishment that would not have happened without the transforming powers of digital learning.

There is a lot of back and forth about the merits of online learning. As it builds momentum and begins to find it’s place in the public education system, it is coming increasingly under fire; the reasons of which are the topic of a whole different discussion and not the focus of my column today. I have read the studies and reports. There are claims about quality, socialization, personal interaction, the role of the teacher, attrition of students and, frankly, a lot of ridiculous notions that merely demonstrate naivety to the various ways that technology can individualize learning and empower students. My information is firsthand and comes from actual feet on the ground. I’m in the trenches.

I’m a pioneer of sorts, an early believer in the power of digital learning. In 2008, I became part of a team brought together to build an online charter, Open High School of Utah, from the ground up. Open High also graduated its first class of seniors this year. My experience building Open High while acting as Board Chair provided me with firsthand knowledge of the positive impact technology and online learning can and are having on kids. My front row seat in the online education arena has created a passion that has led me to devote significant time and energy to help ignite the digital learning revolution. I’m a believer!

But this isn’t my story. This is about the stories of all of our young people across this country who became part of the Class of 2012, not despite online learning but because of it! They’re the ones who have made me believe. Stories like those tweeted by @robdarrow: “Congratulations to the 25 graduates of the Clovis Online School. May not have graduated without #onlinelearning.” Or the June 4, 2012, PR Newswire story, Ohio Online School Graduates Largest Class in the Nation, “the largest graduating class of any school in the nation with over 2,000 students in ECOT’s class of 2012.”

Graduation night for the students of UCA was no ordinary night. It was extraordinary! As each graduate walked up to receive their diploma, their name and a list of qualities provided by their teachers popped up on a screen. One by one each teacher read the qualities they had observed while highlighting the student’s accomplishments. Stories of dedication, commitment, and hard work amid struggle abounded as the teachers shared how students persevered to overcome deficits of credits they had not earned at their traditional schools while simultaneously completing credits for their senior year. Some of the teachers shed tears. So much for those claims about diminished teacher interaction. Learning doesn’t get more personalized than that!

As I handed each graduate their diploma that evening and shook their hand, I was keenly aware of how our online school had served as a safety net for many of them. What had seemed a bleak outlook when they first arrived at UCA had been transformed into a promising future. Like all graduation ceremonies there were speeches about college and careers and making their mark on the world. That night became the high school graduation that was, because these students were able to have their education needs met.

What made the difference for UCA’s Class of 2012? Major paradigm shifts unavailable to them in their traditional bricks and mortar schools. Our students have control over time, place, path and pace. Their progress is governed by subject mastery and competency instead of seat time, while their pathways are directed by real-time data about performance. These elements of customized learning benefit all students, but for many of the graduates of UCA they meant the difference between a diploma or not graduating at all. Their learning experience was student-centric. They had incredible, caring teachers providing one-on-one instruction tailored to meet their individual needs – diverse needs that varied dramatically from student to student – needs that could be accommodated through digital learning.

My view from the trenches? Digital learning not only transforms education, it transforms lives. Congratulations, to all the graduates of online learning programs everywhere who are part of the Class of 2012!

See a SLC Tribune feature on Innovation High

This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

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