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Toward Digital Learning for All

A few of us here at Education Week sat down this week with members of the Digital Learning Council—including Tom Vander Ark, partner at the education public affairs firm Vander Ark/Ratcliff, and Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia—to discuss the group's new report on the "10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning."

Wise and Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, convened—entirely virtually—a group of more than 100 leaders in a variety of sectors (government, education, business, philanthropy, etc.) to form the Digital Learning Council. The report lays out steps policymakers can take to bring technology-based learning to every student.

Digital learning, according to the DLC, can take several forms—from online homeschooling to blended courses, in which an expert is brought in via webcam while an assistant monitors the classroom. Wise and Vander Ark claim it can be higher quality, more consistent, and less expensive than what goes on in traditional brick and mortar schools. Digital learning also allows for tailoring to the individual student (they point to New York City's School of One for an example of how this works).

But there are roadblocks right now—mainly in the form of state and local politics. In many states, policies regarding "seat time" make online learning all but impossible. And state requirements regarding licensing reciprocity complicate having a teacher in one state teach an online course in another.

And as of now, low-income areas tend to allot fewer dollars per student than high-income areas, said Vander Ark, which has led to a serious gap in access to technology between rich and poor students.

If that access gap remains, the achievement gap could widen, cautioned Vander Ark. But if schools put the amount they spend on textbooks toward digital learning, they can give every student access. In 1996, when Vander Ark started the first online K-12 school, computers cost about $2,500 per student, he said. Now, it's possible to put a Netbook in front of a child for about $200.

Ed Week reporters at the meeting dug into some of the tougher issues at the edges a digital learning reform agenda: How do we ensure students get high-quality material, and not just bad textbooks or ineffective teaching reconstituted? How will the unions react to the push for online learning? How will teacher preparation change? Does digital learning really work for all students?

The digital learning advocates said the major policy changes they've outlined in their report, which they admitted are "aspirational," will keep quality high, quell teachers' fears about losing their jobs, and set the bar for teacher certification. Digital learning, with teacher support in a blended environment, can work for essentially every student, they said.

Wise added that fighting the move toward digital learning is like trying to hold a ready racehorse in a stall—it's going to breakthrough. "But at least this provides a road map to every governor and every state chief policy maker and educator about steps we can begin implementing right now."

Ian Quillen over at Ed Week's Digital Education has some more details on the report and how it fits into the context of other ed-tech efforts.

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