Last week I tweeted good news from Digital Learning Now about the state of digital learning in Georgia. In short, Georgia got a B-. But as with any grade, it’s important to know a few things. Who gave the grade? What was the metric? How does the grade compare to others? And finally, what else do we know about digital learning?
What is Digital Learning Now?
Digital Learning Now is a national initiative from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, commonly known as ExcelinEd, first started in Florida by Jeb Bush (Republican) and Bob Wise (Democrat) in 2010. They co-chaired the Digital Learning Council in August 2010, and with other leaders in education and educational policy (like representatives from the The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, iNACOL, and the Black Alliance for Educational Options, to name a few from the Leadership Team), they created a set of standards and policies to guide and evaluate digital learning.
In 2010, they released the 10 Elements of High-Quality Digital Learning during the National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, D. C. The two day summit included 540 policymakers and lawmakers and began November 30. On the second day U.S. Secretary of State Arne Duncan gave the keynote address, in which he discussed, “the need for bipartisan cooperation to advance education reform.” You can find the agenda and some of the presentations here. For those wary of politicians with self-promoting agendas or ulterior motives, the Digital Learning Council seems benevolent, or at least benign.
Ten Elements of High-Quality Learning
The Ten Elements of High-Quality Learning focus on three areas of digital learning: “customization and success for all students, a robust offering of high-quality options, and infrastructure. Below are the ten standards and descriptions from Digital Learning Now’s website:
Customization and Success for All Students: All students should be able to access digital learning to customize their education to achieve academic success.
- Student Access: All students are digital learners.
- Barriers to Access: All students have access to high-quality digital learning.
- Personalized Learning: All students can use digital learning to customize their education.
- Advancement: All students progress based on demonstrated competency.
A Robust Offering of High-Quality Options: To effectively customize education, students must be able to choose from an array of rigorous and effective schools and courses.
- Quality Content: Digital content and courses are high quality.
- Quality Instruction: Digital instruction is high quality.
- Quality Choices: All students have access to multiple high-quality digital learning providers.
- Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the quality of content, courses, schools and instruction.
21st Century Infrastructure: Education must be modernize to ensure students have access to sustained digital learning.
- Funding: Funding provides incentives for performance, options and innovations.
- Infrastructure: Infrastructure supports digital learning.
The list looks solid, but a couple of questions should automatically jump out at you:
- How do they define a “digital learner”?
- What do “digital content” and “courses” look like, and how do you measure their quality? And who gets to decide? Teachers? Policy-makers? Students?
Ultimately, the only way we’ll know the effectiveness and quality of states’ digital learning is when the students are able to voice their opinions and their digital learning needs. I suggest reading the “Roadmap to Reform “to learn more about each standard and the metrics they used to evaluate each standard, but as you do so, keep the student in mind. The policies are for them. The content is for them.
The Roadmap to Reform
The “Roadmap to Reform” is a 22 page document, much of which is policy and aimed at lawmakers and advocacy groups. Each standard is broken down into separate metrics, and there are suggested state-wide actions for each metric.
To return briefly to the report card, the states’ grades come from how well each follows their suggestions. Therefore, the grade only matters if we agree with this framework. Despite the scientific guise, the report card, elements, and metrics are completely subjective. Right now, this is what experts suggest, but those who know a thing or two about the history of education know that best-practices and pedagogy are frequently subject to change. The Little Prince comes to mind.
Is the drawing a hat? Or a boa constrictor who just ate an elephant? If you fundamentally agree with the standards, then yes, the grade means something. But if you don’t agree, or if a suggestion runs counter your values, then naturally a lower grade means less to you. A teacher may take off points for the lumpiness of the hat, but if the drawing is really a boa constrictor, then the lumpiness is a strength. Unfortunately, digital learning is about as transparent as the Little Prince’s drawing, and we don’t know whether we’re looking at a hat or a boa constrictor. All grades, metrics, and elements can only be suggestions.
That said, I think educators should at least read the front matter of the “Roadmap to Reform” because those who make decisions about schools are using this to guide their ideas about digital learning. Teachers need to know what they’re being told.
The Roadmap begins with “Understanding Digital Learning,” and defines digital learning as “learning facilitated by technology that gives students some element of control over time, place, path and/or place.” The Roadmap describes how digital learning allows students to learn outside of the class room (place) and outside of the class time. I raise my eyebrows, however, when it describes digital learning’s impact on the learning path:
Path: Learning is no longer restricted to the pedagogy used by the teacher. Interactive and adaptive software allows students to learn in their own style, making learning personal and engaging. New learning technologies provide realtime data that gives teachers the information they need to adjust instruction to meet the unique needs of each student.
What the Roadmap purports is digital learning solves the problem of teacher-driven, teacher-decided pedagogy: “Don’t worry,” the opening sentence suggests, “you don’t have to depend on teachers to make decisions about their instructional practices. Educational technology will take care of it.” There are several caveats to keep in mind. First, even though the text does not mention curriculum specifically, it is implied, and I would have thought states’ adoption of the Common Core addressed the “problem” of teachers picking and choosing content for their students. Second, local schools often choose which edtech platform to use: either the learning management system (LMS) or the content management system (CMS). They often curate websites, choose online textbooks, and choose Open Educational Resources (OERs) for their students. Finally, despite the first declaration that “students have some control,” we must remember “new learning technologies” collect data on students, and teachers use the data to “adjust instruction.” Although digital learning is “interactive,” it is not necessarily empowering; students are the passive participants.
Following the explanation of how digital learning changes where, when, and how students learn, the Roadmap states that digital learning “requires a combination of technology, digital content and instruction.” “Technology is the tool, not the instruction,” states the Roadmap. This is as it should be, but to what extent do students get to choose the tool? The tool influences the types of work and learning students can—or are permitted—to do.
To illustrate, think of woodworking. If a carpenter’s only tool is a saw, then he can only cut; if his only tool is a hammer, then he can only drive nails into boards. The Roadmap ignores the need to give students access to the entire toolbox. “It [Technology] facilitates how students receive content.” Again, students are the passive recipients of their learning tools.
Digital content is “high quality academic material with is delivered through technology….it isn’t simply a PDF of text or a PowerPoint presentation.” Although this seems like a great definition, it doesn’t actually help teachers to decide what “high quality academic material” is. What does it look like? Who produces high quality academic material? “It ranges from new engaging, interactive and adaptive software to classic literature to video lectures to games.” The Roadmap ignores the possibility that some video lectures can be very boring to watch, and some PowerPoints can embed hyperlinks, videos, apps, and audio. Digital content, as defined here, is not content in terms of curricula, but rather, it is the method of content delivery.
Finally, the Roadmap reassures those worried technology will take teachers’ jobs. It states, “Technology may change the role of the teacher[,] but it will never eliminate the need for a teacher.” Whew. It continues, “teachers will be able to provide the personalized guidance and assistance to ensure students learn and stay on track…. Teachers may be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” But what was the teacher’s role before digital learning if not to guide and assistant students? The Roadmap neither describes teachers’ roles before digital learning nor provides an adequate description of what quality teaching looks like with digital learning. We can infer from the previous information that the teacher is responsible for analyzing data to guide students, but beyond that, what? To what extent are students no longer listening to the “sage on the stage” but instead reacting to predetermined learning environments? To what extent do teachers become the clerk at Kroger who pushes the magic button at the self-checkout that allows you to proceed with checkout? Just saying.
The Roadmap also hints at several shifts in education like larger class sizes (or using MOOCs) to facilitate learning. Another buzz word is “seat-time.” Digital learning ends “the archaic practice of seat-time.” Here, the authors don’t mean how long students spend sitting during a school day, which might actually increase depending on the educational technology being deployed. “Seat-time” refers to how students progress through grade levels. For most schools, students spend one year learning a subject, and after that year, most students are ready to advance to the next grade. We know, however, that some students are ready before the end of the school-year and some aren’t. Digital learning can allow students to advance through grades whenever they are ready, whether it is September, February, or July. On the surface, this looks great! Don’t we all want to give students extra time to learn material or not keep them bored in class? Most might answer yes without hesitation, but consider these two scenarios:
- A ten year old student working on eight grade material. Does the school place that student in a classroom with 14 year olds?
- A sixteen year old student reading at a sixth grade level? Does the school place that student in a classroom with 12 year olds?
Social promotion is a reality for a reason. Some parents may not be comfortable with either scenario, and merely adopting digital learning doesn’t make these decisions easier for the stakeholders: teachers, parents, or students.
Online teachers and classroom teachers need be aware of how policy makers and lawmakers view educational technology, and the Roadmap is a good place to start. At the surface, it all looks great! Who wouldn’t want digital learning when the Roadmap promises that “Digital learning ensures students are never bored and never left behind”? Of course, shouldn’t teachers who don’t use digital learning feel a little insulted at the suggestion that their students are bored and left behind by default?
So, how does Georgia compare? B minus. We seem to be doing pretty well according to ExcelinEd. Only six states earned higher grades, and six other states earned a B minus. In six of the ten elements, many dealing with instruction and content, Georgia scored an A. Georgia received failing grades in student eligibility, advancement (here, read “seat-time”), and funding. I made this infographic to illustrate the data.
What Else about Digital Learning?
Digital Learning Now is a good place to start learning the policies that will shape education and schools’ adoption of and use of technology. But what about students’ needs? What about teachers’ needs?
Speak Up’s “Digital Learning 24/7: Understanding Technology – Enhances Learning in the Lives of Today’s Students” report published in April 2015 shares how students value access to technology and digital learning. Start with their “Ten Things Everyone Should Know about K-12 Students’ Digital Learning.” You can read some of the key findings on their website, but I also recommend scanning the report.
The “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States” report is especially good for seeing how digital learning impacts the classroom. The 2014 Survey of Online Learning is conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and co-sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), Pearson, and Tyton Partner. You can view the key findings at their website, but to get the full report, you must register with your name, email address, and organization. Since the OLC focuses on surveys, I’m sure this registration process is to provide researchers information about who accesses the report. Although I did download the report and read it, I wasn’t keen on giving them my information.
You can, however, view the key findings on the site without registering. Plus, there are two interesting infographics using the survey results. One is “Keeping Pace with the Changing Face of Online Learning” and the other, “Grade Level, 2014,” which focuses on sharing the survey’s results. All teachers should look at the second infographic to discover the divide between teachers and administration when it comes to knowledge about online resources.
For example, the following graphs suggest two things: 1. Teachers don’t know much about Open Educational Resources (OER) and 2. Administrators are doing a poor job informing teachers about OER.
Perhaps administrators do inform their staff, but they do so in short emails without providing training, support and time for faculty to learn and explore OER.
Just one of many reasons why teachers need to explore the results themselves. These results influence policymakers, lawmakers, administration, educational technology companies, nonprofit initiatives, and publishers. Teachers must learn what’s being said to join the conversation.