Digital Learning Models Should Be Open To All

First published on ThinkTan K12   Thursday, 11/21/2013
By: Dr. Mary H. Futrell 
Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed our nation’s struggle to ensure equal access and opportunity for children in public education.  I saw it firsthand when, in the early 1960’s, I taught at the segregated Parker Gray High School in Alexandria, Virginia, and later at the George Washington High School when I was working to integrate the teaching staff during the height of the civil rights era.
These experiences drove me to become a passionate advocate for equal rights, and to support efforts to improve access to quality education for all children regardless of their background, race, or life circumstance.
My experience taught me that there is no single solution to this multi-layered problem.  With the rise of the Internet and technology, I began to see a new way we could reach populations of students who were isolated due to economic status or geography, and simultaneously expand access to high quality courses. I also saw how digital learning, when properly used, could improve academic content and help teachers with instruction.
In 2007, I joined the board of directors at K12 Inc., a technology-based education company known for developing digital learning curriculum and operating online and blended schools.  I believed then, as I do now, K12 was on the cutting edge of leveraging technology to deliver individualized learning programs to diverse student populations.
Online learning is still in its incubator stage, and, like any new innovation, is prone to growing pains.  I’m aware of the critics who point to results from high stakes tests to conclude that online learning is failing and should be slowed or stopped.  Some qualify their criticism by arguing that online schools should be available, but to only select groups of students. Other students – low-income, special needs or low-performing – are somehow pre-disposed to fail and therefore should be restricted from enrolling in online schools.  In my view, that’s the most pernicious argument of all. Some of those same reasons were used to justify segregating schools in the past.  The promise of public education is equal access for all, whether in traditional, online, or any other public school program.
Online schools are public schools with the same standards and obligations of other public schools.  Arbitrarily filtering students is not an option nor should it ever be.  However, I firmly believe that online schools (and their providers) have a responsibility to give parents all the information they need to help them make informed choices for their children.  It’s not the job of educators to pre-judge who can or cannot succeed.  Our duty is to serve every student and help them achieve at their maximum potential.
Online schools are a unique education model.  They are rigorous and require significant amounts of student participation, parental involvement, and commitment.  Engagement is the key to success.  If an online school student is actively engaged, working diligently through their individualized learning program, they can achieve, regardless of their academic history.
I’m under no illusion of the current challenges both K12 and the online learning community face.  Test scores have fallen as the number of academically at-risk students has increased dramatically.  Our company is proud to serve all types of students, but we are not satisfied with the results and know they must improve.  K12’s Board of Directors has directed the company to invest in the development of new academic programs, education models, and teaching tools to better serve this population. Our academic team is focused on new initiatives aimed at raising student engagement, providing additional intervention and remediation to struggling students, and using data to drive smart instructional decisions. Through enhanced professional development and training, we are strengthening teachers’ pedagogical skills to improve their instruction.
We’ve seen some success, albeit modest, including with certain student sub-groups that had previously struggled.  We’ve taken positive steps forward and are committed to doing even more for our students and schools.
I’ve worn many hats throughout my career, as a teacher, president of the National Education Association, dean at a prestigious university, and board member at philanthropic and education groups.  What matters to me is not an organization’s tax status, but its devotion to mission.   I share K12’s mission to serve the individual needs of every student and provide access to quality education for all.  K12 is not – as some suggest – a place devoid of educators.  It is an organization filled with high-quality teachers and educators working in a culture where students come first.  They realize how much work is needed to improve outcomes, and their commitment to achieve this goal is unwavering.
Despite challenges, I remain optimistic about the future of digital learning. It’s an old cliché, but true nonetheless:  One size does not fit all.  Online schools are a great option, but are not for every student.  As educators, we want to see students in schools where they can and will succeed, regardless of whether it is a traditional, online or other school model.  What we must resist, however, is any impulse to wall off innovative educational solutions from some in favor of others based on assumptions of who can and cannot succeed.  Our purpose should be to both improve the overall quality of education and advance the principle of equal access and opportunity for all children.  It’s a pledge I’ve carried into the Board room of K12 Inc. and one that I know is shared by my fellow board members and educators at K12.
Dr. Mary H. Futrell is the former dean of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development (GSEHD) and past President of the Virginia Education Association and National Education Association.  She is co-director of GSEHD’s Center for Curriculum, Standards, and Technology and a member of the K12 Inc. board of directors.

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1 Comment


I agree with Dr. Futrell. I believe that online learning is important and rather than trying to make it go away as some would like, we need to work to improve it. I recently completed an online doctoral program that I know by many is not viewed as seriously as a degree earned at a brick and mortar university. But I believe that I received just as rigorous a degree as anyone else and I feel my dissertation is of a quality comparable to that found in other universities. As I work at my full-time job as a Pk-5 librarian I see where many of my students would benefit from a more digital environment. I believe that through more digital learning we can tailor the learning experience that an individual child needs to succeed. I applaud those leading the way in online learning and I hope to join you in the near future!

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