Creating Sound Policy For Digital Learning

This blog was originally published on Huffington Post.
Fordham released two important papers today as part of the Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series.  The first, Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction, is by the co-directors of Public Impact.  Bryan and Emily Hassel are the Gladwells of education—they point to profound truths hiding in plan sight.   In short, this is the best current description of the implications of digital learning on learning professionals.

Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction

The Hassel’s primary assertion is that in the age of digital learning, “Teacher effectiveness may matter even more than it does today.”  I buy the argument that edtech will increasingly build basic skill but they run the risk of being trapped in a Rocketship rut—”tech does easy stuff, teachers promote critical thinking.”  That’s one currently useful pattern, but innovative delivery models are advancing other alternatives.
Their conclusion that “The elements of excellent teaching that are most difficult for technology to replace will increasingly differentiate student outcomes,” may be projecting a bit of the individual practitioner past into a team based design-centric future.  The Hassels write about the implications for individuals but I’m a fan of design thinking—systems and cultures matter more than individual effort.  Rick Ogsten has good teachers, but Carpe Diem is design success—it allows good teachers to get results.
In the “tech does the basics” vein and making the case for the super teacher they point to seven higher order dimensions that “Distinguish excellent teachers from peers.”  These include motivation, mentoring, self management, and development of social skills.  It’s true that adaptive software will help build math skills, but I’m equally enthusiastic about:

  • Simulations that boost system thinking
  • Self management tools that build productivity
  • Social learning platforms that enable anywhere/anytime collaboration
  • Motivational systems that boost persistence, and
  • Decision support tools that guide post-secondary choices.

I generally agree with the suggestion that there are three ways edtech will help with talent development: extending the best, improving the rest, and inspire new talent to join the field.   In my recent book, Getting Smart, rather than referring to teachers, I began referring to learning professionals to indicate a broadening array of career opportunities in and around teaching and learning.  The Hassels point to a future with  “a smaller, but much stronger and more highly paid” teaching force.  First a small caution (given created hysteria about computers replacing teachers) that productivity gains will be small compared to manufacturing—education will remain a human services sector for the foreseeable future.  Second, the proliferation of blended models and delivery strategies suggests that roles for learning professions will be more specialized (and model specific), there will be more levels (i.e., a career lattice), and a bit more distributed.
They announce that, “The digital revolution needs excellent teacher.”  Instead, I’d say, “The shift to personal digital learning will leverage excellent teachers. “ Rather than being trapped in a traditional schedule impacting 150 students, a great middle grade math teacher could lead a team serving 600 students in a blended format and produce resources that benefit thousands.
I agree with their implications for teacher evaluations, specifically that increasingly multiple people rather than a single teacher will contribute to a student’s learning. This suggests that school systems should plan on updating evaluation procedures at least every other year for a decade as new data and new models are introduced into the system.  To that end, the Hassels call for flexibility in state employment policies, links to an updated funding system, and the need for a talent marketplace.
They close this important contribution with a call for courageous leadership. The leadership challenge will be a bit easier with the Hassels outlining the necessary dialog.

School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era

The second paper released today deals with the digital learning implications for school finance.  Author Paul Hill leads the Center for Reinventing Public Education.  His work over the last two decades has done more to shape my views about how to design delivery of public education than any other scholar.  Like the Hassel’s paper, the recommendations presented in School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era are well aligned with the recommendations of Digital Learning Now.
Dr. Hill lays out in some detail all the ways that the current haphazard system is “stacked against innovation.”  Rather than tinkering, Paul suggests that states should“ start from scratch and create a new school-funding system.” He suggests a central design principal, “Make funding for education follow the child to any school or instructional program in which he or she enroll.”
He recommends that a technology-friendly funding system would need to:

  • Fund education, not institutions
  • Move money as students move
  • Pay for unconventional forms of instruction, and
  • Withhold funding for ineffective programs without chilling innovation.

Digital Learning Now recommends that funding should be weighted, portable, and performance based.   Paul hits all of these but treads lightly on weighted student funding suggesting it as an option.  Weighted funding implies that students that bring more risk factors to school should receive more funding—the reverse of the average situation in America today where affluent kids typically get more funding than kids from low income families.  A reliance on local property tax makes a Robin Hood funding formula extraordinarily controversial.
Paul advances the idea of portability in two important ways in this paper.  The first is ‘backpack’ funding that not only follows the student but also could provide a family a wallet that would recognize differential pricing and enable procurement of a wide range of academic and extracurricular options.  Paul discusses six risk limiting proposals for folks that get nervous about parents as decision makers.
The second breakthrough proposal in this paper suggests scraping the complicated system of local levies and partial state matches for school construction.  Instead, “Funds previously earmarked for facilities and maintenance could be included in the backpack.”  I’d love to see school districts get out of the real estate development business.  If a little tech and facilities funding showed up with enrollment revenue for courses, providers could lease appropriate facilities.  This would lead to more school options, more facilities flexibility, and far more productive use of public space.  This transition could be accompanied by the sale and lease of many school facilities that could raise billions in funding for operations and program development.
Paul concludes that “A funding system can’t cause innovation: It can only interfere with it, or let it happen.”  I’m not sure that’s true.  If states actually did what Paul suggests here I think it would cause a digital learning revolution.

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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Ed Lyell

Great review, Tom. It is great to me for education thinkers to start to make progress on designing ways to use technology for real transformation of the education production function. Since writing my MBA thesis on 'computer assisted instruction..." in 1970 I have been increasingly frustrated that technology has mostly been just an expensive add-on to a stagnant talking head classroom system.
Congrats to you and the others for starting to really move things forward.


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Ed. These are two important papers (in a series of 6) that are useful discussions of the likely impacts of digital learning

Ann Snider

I am looking for models for our locals to use to write their policies/guidelines for student-use. Any papers coming up on that or ideas?

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