Oklahoma Dialog on Digital Learning Now

A dedicated group of Oklahoma educators spent the last two days wrestling with the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning from Digital Learning Now at the Digital Learning Summit.  I joined a Heather Staker from Innosight, Mark Schneiderman from SIIA, Doug Levin from SETDA, and several more digital learning experts in supporting the conversation.  It was humbling to be immersed in the complexity of the challenges facing American educators today.
The challenge is that about one third of our students are really college and career ready (and that may be a generous estimate).  Raising standards and helping more students graduate college and career ready is an enormous challenge.  The shift to digital learning adds benefits but increases complexity.  And, in most places, there’s no more money.  In fact we’re dealing with what Marguerite Roza calls the Decade of Deficits.
The working groups generally accepted the premise that online and blended learning had the potential to boost achievement and stretch budgets.  However, the Digital Learning Now framework includes several provisions that are often controversial with school administrators.  The proposition of multiple statewide providers of full and part-time online learning is key to equitable options for all students but it’s not very popular with school districts because the fear the implications of lost revenue (and it is harder for districts to manage a shrinking budget than a growing budget).  Some superintendents also voice concerns about linking a portion of state funding to completion and achievement.
Performance-based evaluation and employment can also be controversial but it is a widely discussed topic (in part due to Race to the Top provisions) not limited to the shift to digital learning.
Digital Learning does have three tough issues—they are technically, politically, and financially complicated and require public agreements:

  • Balancing improved access with efforts to improve quality.  Tendencies to erect barriers to entry (for content and instructional providers) and to apply old textbook review processes to new forms of digital content are well intentioned but aren’t productive.  DLN recommends that quality improvement efforts focus on authorization of providers including a comprehensive review of proposed services and a rigorous renewal process after a couple years of services.
  • Competency-based matriculation.  For hundreds of years, education was managed by age cohorts and seat time.  The shift to individual progress requires new assessments, new management tools, and new school models.  It may take us a generation of living with Big Data to develop competency-based mindsets and practices.
  • Paying for access devices.  Laptops and tablets continue to get cheaper but it’s still a challenge to figure out how to get one in the hands of every student.  In most places it will take a partnership between states and districts that includes a comprehensive revision of how schools that are funded and, specifically, a phased reallocation of budgets for content, technology, professional development, and a modified approach to staffing.

A combined approach similar to the one in Riverside, California will become common.  It includes “bring what you have,” district provided computers for low income students, and a variety of solutions to boost home access.
Superintendent Barresi, a Chief for Change, and her team participated in the two day dialog and will turn the effort into a draft plan.
The Oklahoma dialog was a good example of a well-structured and staffed process addressing a timely but challenging topic. Blended learning is the best chance we have to stretch teacher talent and boost achievement without a lot of new money.

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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