Policy Implications of Online & Blended Learning

At the National Charter School Conference (#NCSC) in Minneapolis yesterday, I participated in a discussion of the Policy Implications of Online & Blended Learning with Jim Griffin, Colorado Leage of Charter Schools, Mickey Revenaugh, Connections Learning, and David Hanson.
I told the audience of school heads, authorizers, network leaders and district administrators that Digital Learning Now!, chaired by former governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise, was created to address the policy implications created by new learning opportunities.  The 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning are framework for state education policy. If you haven’t, check out The Nation’s Digital Learning Report Card and see how your state faired on the 72 point rubric.
The panel weighed in on six big questions
How should online and blended learning be funded?
Digital Learning Now suggests that education funding should provide incentives for performance, options and innovations (See Element #9 Video).
Florida Virtual School receives half of its per pupil funding based when a student complete.  If all schools received a small portion of their funding contingent upon successful completion of a course it may improve incentives to promote persistence. At a minimum, practices that create incentive for push-outs–like funding on a beginning of the school year count day–should be avoided.
Digital Learning Now adds that, “Geographically unbounded digital learning provides incentive for states to develop an equalized and weighted funding formula that better matches resources with individual student needs regardless of zip code.”
The panel acknowledged that it will be challenging to get the incentives right for competency-based learning; for example, providing incentives for acceleration while supporting students moving at a slower pace.
How can schools be staffed differently?
Blended learning is a team sport; it creates opportunities for expert teachers to impact a larger number of students sometimes working with para-professionals (in Connection’s Nexus academies, they are called Success Coaches).
A blended schedule may also take advantage of a remote specialist–a physics teacher, or a speech therapist.
Element #6 of Digital Learning Now weighs in on preparation and certification:

Preparation and professional development programs should educate teachers and administrators on how to engage students, personalize learning, teach online and manage learning environments. Educators should be prepared for specific roles – traditional, blended or online – and then certified based on demonstrated performance. Performance-based certification will become increasingly important as the number and type of roles for learning professionals expands. (See Element #6 Video.)

Why move away from seat time?
On this topic, Mickey and I are proud to serve as directors at the International Association of K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), the leading advocate for shifting from time to learning.  With several partners, iNACOL director Susan Patrick recently launched CompetencyWorks, an online community of educators dedicated to moving away from seat time as the dominant controlling factor in American education. The site  say, “Across our country, schools, districts and states are investing in innovations that re-design our education system around competency education. Rejecting the time-based system that reproduces inequities and low achievement, these innovators are designing a system in which student success is the only option.”
Digital Learning Now also has a strong point of view on this topic.  Element #4 summarizes the benefits of competency-based learning:

Digital learning offers the potential for students to study at their own pace and advance based upon competency and mastery of the material — it is student-centered, not school-centered. In this environment, seat time requirements and the all-too-common practice of social promotion become obsolete. A student will spend as much time as necessary to gain competency. Additionally, digital learning adapts to situations where a student is ahead in one subject and behind in another. Making high stakes assessments, which are used to trigger progression, available when students are ready will accelerate student learning. (See Element #4 Video.)

Should kids be screened for virtual schools rather than lottery enrollment?
This one is tricky. I don’t like the idea of any screen that could reduce options for families.  But this is an honest question asked by folks worried about mixed results from virtual schools.  Many of the operators of virtual schools wouldn’t mind a trial period where families figure out if the option works for them.
The problem (much discussed during the development of Digital Learning Now) is informed choice is generally a good thing, but large scale policies that require choices to be informed are usually a really bad thing.  It is probably impossible for a state to create a screening mechanism that doesn’t, at least in many instances, turn into a barrier. If school districts are instructed to conduct a screen, kids won’t leave the school district.
Within districts and programs, a program of earned autonomy is great idea. In secondary schools, students could demonstrate readiness to spend part of the week offsite.  Schools should assess needs and customize placement & program for students.
Perhaps a two week trial period for new classes and new schools is in order.  That works as long as money follows the student.
What’s the benefit of big virtual schools?
An authorizer asked why there there should be statewide schools of 5,000 students.  My answer was that in order to offer every AP, foreign language, high level STEM, and dual enrollment course on demand (with rolling enrollment like FLVS), it’s requires scale of at least 5-10,000 students.  It creates more options and makes them more affordable for schools (and states).
What’s on the horizon?
Big data is the next big thing.  We’ve lived with data poverty for so long, few of us can imagine having abundant data to inform a whole series of professional judgements.  The implementation of online assessments in 2014-15 (just 25 months away) is a great start.  The timeline is a great excuse to introduce more formative and learning embedded assessments. The timeline is a great opportunity to pilot several blended learning models.  The combination of more data, better tools, and new learning models has launched a virtual cycle of improvement that will accelerate in the second half of this decade.

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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1 Comment

Scott Carpenter

So here we are in 2017-18 school year and our school district, (Garfield 16) is heading down the COmpetency Based road). As we head down this road, I can't help but wonder how many more policy demons will rear there ugly heads, than even those mentioned hear. Myself being only a technology teacher, I had not looked into some of these depths yet (funding, for example). Thank you for the beginning to a whole new train of thought.

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