Task Force Should Focus on Digital Learning Ideas Marketplace

By Eric Wearne

Eric Wearne, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Recently Governor Nathan Deal announced a task force to “recommend ways to improve student achievement through the creation of robust digital learning environments, which may include the transition to digital textbooks and the effective use of wireless mobile devices.”

In his remarks, the Governor stated that, “Students need to develop technical literacy in order to attain 21st century skills and become competitive in the global marketplace, and our state will invest in that education. We must increase the quality and quantity of our digital learning opportunities to ensure that our students are college or career ready.”

Leaving aside the fact that a great many of the students in school today probably already have better “technical literacy” than their teachers or parents, here are just three specific suggestions regarding how the task force might best approach its work in order to fulfill the Governor’s charge to “improve student achievement through the creation of robust digital learning environments.”

• Allow students to enroll in any virtual education program in the state, full time or part time – to limit these choices based on whether a school is run by the state, a charter provider, or another school district has no educational purpose;

• Fund online education equally with brick and mortar education, and on a per student basis – let schools and parents decide on the right combination of virtual and face to face instruction to suit their needs (and let the parents control how the funding attached to their students is spent);

• Exempt online and blended course from class size requirements – if the state sees growing access to the best teachers and lessons as a goal, especially for rural areas, then it must enable those teachers to be available to as many students as possible (and compensate them for their higher value);

Moving to digital textbooks may save money. And most elementary schools (and parents of elementary schoolers) are well aware of educational programs and apps like BrainPOP. But these are examples of digital activities that are likely to grow no matter what the task force does – they already have some momentum.

In their efforts to successfully create “robust digital learning environments,” the goal of the Governor’s task force should not be to try to predict which technologies are likely to be the next big thing, and then recommend funding for those, to flow through the school systems or the state Department of Education. That would be choosing winners and losers, in an area where we are still very unsure what the best pedagogical strategies are. It’s a 21st century version of the “One Best System” approach.

The task force’s goal should be to set up an environment in which a market for online learning ideas can be created, between some guardrails to ensure quality. The market for online learning in K-12 will call for real changes in the way we conceptualize, as education scholars David Tyack and Larry Cuban have put it, the “grammar of schooling.”

Existing school systems, state virtual schools, many colleges and universities, and private businesses are both experimenting with and implementing blended and fully online learning formats effectively. There are certainly many more variations yet to be explored, which could prove even more effective in providing the most opportunities for the widest number of students.

How should the market look, and which types of providers should be encouraged to operate in it to improve student achievement? No one can say they know for sure. The task force should recognize this, and recommend the parameters for a market to grow “robust digital learning environments,” rather than a specific pedagogical or technological approach.

(Eric Wearne is a Georgia Public Policy Foundation Senior Fellow and Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education. Previously he served the Georgia Governor’s Office as deputy director at the Office of Student Achievement.)

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