Advancing Digital Learning Reforms Means Hard (and Smart) Work Lies Ahead

Digital learning is much more than a buzzword. It’s a real trend in K-12 education that’s growing faster than any single person or entity can keep up with. The effective use of technology in instruction to enhance student learning experiences takes on a variety of forms — including full-time online education programs and numerous blended learning models. Like many other reforms, it can be done well or done badly.

While digital learning is no magical silver bullet to save every student in every school, neither is it something to be feared. Rather, the opportunity needs to be embraced as a tool to strengthen and enhance the reach of quality instruction, to improve and diversify curricula, to focus staff time and energy, and provide for more productive use of education dollars.

I can’t begin to try to point you to all the important nooks and crannies of this issue, but the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has brought together some of the best current thinking in their new book Education Reform for the Digital Era. (If you’d rather pop up some popcorn, Fordham also has just released a 90-minute video panel discussion on this very theme.)

Well worth the read is the book’s introduction. Fordham’s Checker Finn and Daniela Fairchild lay out the large-scale challenges facing any major effort to maximize digital learning capabilities for students:

  • Self-interested school districts seeking to co-opt digital learning and unions supporting rules and structures that benefit adults, both of which end up stifling innovation and ultimately restricting student learning opportunities;
  • Limits to “human and organizational capacity” in a bureaucratic system that has grown fixated on increased staffing and cash resources as a hopeful route to solutions; and
  • Fundamental arrangements of how schools are governed and financed, policies embedded in laws and longstanding practices that lack the nimbleness to best serve students’ needs.

The last obstacle not only points to the thoughtful analysis of Dr. Paul Hill. It also covers most of the issues identified in Colorado’s own new digital learning policy roadmap, based on a wide range of input from the state’s online education leaders and assembled and released by my Education Policy Center friends. Colorado officials have the details of their work cut out for them, but the big ideas lie clearly in front of them.

The Fordham book’s introduction identifies the challenges, and the essays inside (crafted by experts like Rick Hess, Bryan and Emily Hassel, and John Chubb) pose very thoughtful approaches to address those challenges. But we really need to roll up our sleeves and get to work to find out what will work best for the next generation of Colorado — and all American — students. As Finn and Fairchild eloquently explain:

Knocking down the real barriers to change will be a huge undertaking, however, and nothing on today’s familiar reform agenda can get this job done. Which is to say, a serious effort to overcome the obstacles means reshaping that agenda, even redefining what we mean by “education reform.” Indeed, the nascent revolution in digital learning is revealing the cracks and gaps in the reform agenda of the past quarter century—and pointing the way toward a new one that is apt to prove even more wrenching and challenging than what we’ve been working to achieve.

It’ll take a combination of sweat and smarts. But just remember: The reward is worth it!