Getting the Policy Environment Right for Digital Learning

As states begin to expand their virtual education programs, some basic principles need to guide their choices, if digital learning is to have the transformative impact that I have elsewhere argued is entirely possible (see  On December 1 the Digital Learning Council, which is part of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and is headed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, broke new ground by recommending 10 such principles.

They emphasize the need for broad student access to digital learning, a focus on demonstrated achievement, and the need to blend online learning with education at brick-and-mortar schools.

All that is well and good, but their most important recommendation has to do with the way in which state governments should fund digital learning interventions.  Specifically, they recommend that “state funding [that] allows customization of education including choice of providers.”  If students have a choice among providers, if many options are provided, and if providers receive state funding, depending on their enrollment, then the key policy cornerstone is in place.  Providers will compete for student enrollments by showing they have the most exciting, most adaptive, most appropriate curricular offerings.  (This follows the basic design in Florida, where students can chose between courses offered at their local district school or courses offered by a statewide school, Florida Virtual School.)

Two more elements are needed:  Funding should be split among providers, if they are sharing the cost burden.  If a student takes a course in a district school from an online provider (say, Apple or Google or the new group Joel Klein is heading up for Rupert Murdoch), then some of the funding should go to the district school, with the balance to the designer of the curriculum.  (In Florida, today, funds go either to Florida Virtual School or to the district school—no splitting of funding is possible, an unfortunate impediment to rapid expansion of the on-line learning environment.)

And, finally, digital learning needs to be transparent and accountable.  The public needs to be assured that the student is actually the one who is completing the work for the course, and the public needs to be assured that the course is not only well designed by well executed—without imposing unnecessary restrictions that will impede innovation.

The Foundation report provides a valuable platform for building the appropriate policy environment for digital learning.  If that is done right, the marketplace will soon deliver innovative products that reach each student at the level they are ready to comprehend. John Dewey’s vision of student-centered learning can be achieved after all.

-Paul E. Peterson

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