Now is the Time for State Policymakers to Embrace New Models of Learning

For the student in 2014, learning begins before the first bell and ends long after they walk out of the schoolhouse.

Whether editing wikis, turning in homework for a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), or learning Arabic by chatting with their language partner from Marrakesh, students know that what happens in the four walls of their classroom is only one part of their academic life.

State education policy should enhance the connected life of the student, not restrict it. When students walk into the classroom, antiquated policy restrictions on time and place should not hamper their ability to receive the best instruction and content that the 21st century can offer. While many students now experience the benefits of digital learning, countless others are still left behind.

State and local governments are emerging as the new battlegrounds for innovative models of learning. From cities, such as Washington, D.C. trying to ban services like Uber, to state legislators voting to ban next-generation vehicles like Tesla, new innovations are confronting barriers created by policy and regulation.

Policy can protect the status quo and further entrench old models, or it can help accelerate reforms and scale innovation. State policy shapes the regulatory environment in which online providers operate, how schools can award credit, and how funding decisions are made. It can reinforce print resources, or it can free up funds to flow to digital content. It can limit new models of learning – like online, blended or competency-based education through geographic or enrollment caps, or by restricting the use of funds to purchase digital content; or it can support them by building a strong, sustainable and accountable framework.

Today’s policymakers and education leaders have the opportunity to usher in the next generation of education in America. The Internet and new technologies can be a catalyst for rethinking the way we organize learning, provide instruction, and meet the needs of students, teachers and parents. Digital learning can:

*Personalize learning for each student’s unique needs. Teachers have longed for the ability to differentiate instruction for students and now can, thanks to technology that helps to individualize the lessons, activities and instruction for students.

*Empower teachers, parents and leaders with secure, protected real-time data and analytics to adjust instruction, match the right interventions to the right students at the right time, and glean new insight into student learning.

*Expand access to the best content, resources and learning opportunities, thereby increasing choices available to students, regardless of location. The best way to scale resources to meet the new challenging Common Core State Standards or courses such as Advanced Placement is leveraging online platforms.

*Equip teachers with productivity tools to help them manage instruction, find the right content for their class, and save time spent on repetitive, mundane paperwork. The connected learning models are also redefining the teaching profession with new career opportunities and jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago.

*Enable new models of schools, instruction and interventions. Schools are flipping classroom models so that students watch lectures after school in order to provide more interactive classroom discussion during the school day. New blended learning schools and classrooms are taking the best of online learning and creating new approaches to teaching and learning.

*Engage students through rich content, games and simulations that can boost motivation and persistence. A playlist of powerful learning experiences for homework (or summer work) holds the promise of extended learning time. Dynamic grouping and online connections makes learning more (not less) social.

Emerging models of learning that are student-centric, flexible and results-based are demonstrating success in some of our most challenging and chronically-underperforming school systems. Often, these schools are taking advantage of the innovations offered by blended learning technology platforms and combining them with the regulatory freedom offered under charter school laws, waivers of seat time requirements, and teacher reforms to develop entirely new models of education.

It is important to examine state policy and evaluate whether it is accelerating or restricting next-generation approaches to education. Such efforts help identify opportunities for reform, best practices that can be replicated, and important trends that need to be better understood. The framework outlined in the 2013 Digital Learning Report Card intends to provide the flexibility that allows these innovative models to be tested, refined and expanded.

The Report Card offers a comprehensive state-by-state analysis of laws and policies that embrace new education models, utilize technology to make personalized learning a reality for all students, and eliminate the barriers to blended learning in K-12 education. States are making strides in offering high-quality digital learning options and supporting next-generation models of learning. In 2013 alone, more than 450 digital learning bills were debated and 132 were ultimately signed into law in states throughout the country. The Report Card highlights the efforts of each state and underscores the opportunities for reform to create an environment where digital learning can thrive.

-John Bailey

John Bailey is executive director of Digital Learning Now, a national initiative of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

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