Leading the Shift to Personal Digital Learning

The shift to digital learning is expanding educational opportunity in the U.S. and even more significantly in emerging economies.  The potential to customize learning, to boost engagement, and to extend learning at reduced costs is a set of world-changing opportunities.

The shift is being propelled by expanding broadband, cheap access devices, cloud computing, and improving content. Six trends are propelling the shift in U.S. K-12 sector:

  1. Higher expectations of real college and career-ready standards reflected in the Common Core.
  2. Most states will help orchestrate improved student Internet access to support a shift to online assessment by 2014.
  3. An extended “new normal” period of flat or shrinking resources in most states.
  4. Expanding mobile access and student demand for learning options—both formal and informal.
  5. Expanding number of states that support choice to the course and multiple providers
  6. Growing full and part time enrollment in online learning

A recent Ambient Insight report suggests that online learning is growing even faster than expected. The report says “Over 4 million students are currently participating in some kind of formal virtual learning program, and “The combined online population is currently growing by 46% a year and the growth rate is accelerating.”

Growth in Digital Learning Options

Until recently, I thought learning at home (home education plus virtual charters) would double and then plateau at a rate short of 10%.  But Ambient suggests that, “A conservative forecast is that by 2015, over 4.5 million US children will be schooled at home.” That would be 8.2%, of all school children and with cyber charter kids, Ambient forecasts that more than 10% of students will be learning at home by 2015.  Ambient believes that over 75% of home-educated children will be online (but not necessarily fulltime) by 2015.”  I’ll bet more than 90% will be doing some learning online.
I think Ambient’s growth rates beyond 2013 may be a little high, but I revised my view that learning at home will plateau at or below 10%.  With activated parent co-ops and community based organizations, full or part time online enrollment in an online school or at least significant use of informal online learning resources to learn at home could approach or even exceed 9 million students or close to 15% of the P-12 population by 2020.
Here’s my forecast (expressed in millions of U.S. P-12 students) of participation in online and blended options:


Students blending their own learning through supplemental enrollment will continue to grow by almost 30% as more states expand access, and may hit 15 million students by 2020.

The Rise of Blended Learning

While learning at home may triple by the end of the decade, most of the growth in digital learning will be adoption by existing schools.  By the end of the decade most K-12 schools will blend online and onsite learning.  But unlike the last 20 years, it won’t be adding computers to the way we’ve always done school.
By the end of the decade most K-12 schools will blend online and onsite learning. Blended learning is a shift in instruction to an online environment for a portion of the student day designed to improve learning and operating productivity.  Michael Horn, author of The Rise of Blended Learning, adds “some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.”  Horn and coauthor Heather Staker outline six variations of blended learning and a couple early examples in each category.
The adoption of blended learning by public schools will be a function of early examples of success, ease and affordability of conversion, and the extent to which there is continued cost and achievement pressure.

Blended Opportunities

The shift to personal digital learning and, in particular, the adoption of blended models creates at least 15 opportunities for enterprising educators:

  1. Engaging and adaptive content
  2. Online learning: content and instruction
  3. Social learning applications
  4. New blended school models
  5. Blended turnaround models
  6. Blended schools with community based organizations
  7. Low cost blends for emerging markets
  8. Professional development
  9. Assessment services
  10. Achievement analytics
  11. Recommendation engines
  12. Targeted tutoring
  13. Online special services
  14. Value-added tablet/netbook bundles
  15. Planning and program management

The shape and speed of the shift will be lumpy and highly dependent on state and local leadership.  The size of the sector, domestic and worldwide, and the importance of success are attracting increasing philanthropic and venture investment.  Most exciting is the talent entering the sector, both young and old.  The energy and insight applied by these entrepreneurs will pay global learning dividends.

Leading the Shift to Personal Digital Learning” by Tom Vander Ark was originally published on EIA Enterprising Educators.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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