Keeping Pace preview: What does a long look back—and ahead—suggest? (Part 2)

Written by Mickey Revenaugh and John Watson Mickey Revenaugh is Executive Vice President, Connections Learning and Co-Founder, Connections Academy, and is a long-time Keeping Pace sponsor and supporter. Mickey and John co-wrote this post, a version of which appears as the conclusion to the Keeping Pace 2013 report.

As we wrote in the first part of this post, despite some places tied in Gordian knots and others arguably regressing, online and blended learning is undoubtedly more common, of higher quality, and providing more opportunities than it was a decade ago. For example:

  • Blended schools are offering new opportunities to students, many of whom are low-income or at-risk, in inner-city areas of California, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, and many other states. These schools did not exist ten years ago.
  • More students have access to fully online schools, and hundreds of thousands of students are choosing this option for their education. Although the percentage of students for whom a fully online school will likely always remain small, for those students online learning is their best—and possibly their only—option.
  • Some individual school districts, such as Riverside, Clark County, and Washington DC, are showing that a traditional district can be among the most innovative of organizations. Countless others are building on the earliest of adopters and offering new options to their students. Converting an existing school to a blended approach, or adding online options in an existing district, is in many ways more challenging than opening a new school. Educators from existing schools and districts are showing that it can be done.
  • State virtual schools continue to demonstrate how a public investment in supporting students with online courses can pay off for students statewide, and course choice programs are beginning to show that private providers can offer a viable option as well.
  • New research, primarily funded by the federal government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, improved state-level reporting. Course reviews by organizations such as the California Learning Resources Network are allowing educators to have a much improved sense for what works than in earlier years. Blended learning implementation guides from Digital Learning Now, iNACOL, and others are demonstrating proven approaches to planning and launching online and blended programs.

Lessons learned

The 50 states have taken 50 different approaches to online and blended learning policy. Some are similar to each other, but none are the same. What do these different examples show us from the past ten years, and what does it suggest for the future?

Policy matters

The online and blended learning options available to students vary widely among states because of the policy environment that legislators, governors, and state boards of education create. Now that there are so many examples of successful online and blended courses and schools, there is no reason to restrict students from having access to the full array of digital learning options. In many cases, opening up opportunity doesn’t mean creating more complex laws and regulations, but instead simplifying, cutting out archaic underbrush, and establishing common principles.

Funding must be equitable

Policy that allows a wide assortment of online and blended learning options must be tied to funding formulas and levels that provide an adequate level of funding for all students, regardless of the mode of instruction that they choose.

Quality through accountability is critical

Access to options is necessary, but not in itself sufficient. Access for students must be tied to accountability for providers, with a focus on quality outcomes. However, few states are making the investment in both the data systems and the culture of data usage to allow for adequate information on results of individual schools and courses, particularly when taking into account that so many students using online schools are outside the mainstream. The fate of the Common Core assessments may further hinder useful quality metrics.

Existing schools and teachers are critical

The most recent innovations often capture the most attention, whether they are online courses in years past, blended schools in the more recent past, or MOOCs today. For the foreseeable future, most students will obtain most of their education primarily by attending a physical school that is using existing teachers. Many of these schools and teachers are experimenting with new digital approaches, often in response to competition to the innovations. Policymakers and education advocates should ensure that innovations are replicable and scalable, and that “new” isn’t always assumed to mean “better. “

A new digital divide ahead?

For students, there is a substantial difference between going to school in state committed to quality online and blended learning (and allowing for the necessary experimentation to create these opportunities), and a state without. This difference is large and growing, and threatens to open a new educational digital divide: one separating students who have access to 21st century learning opportunities, and those who do not. In its second decade, Keeping Pace will be dedicated to shining a bright light on this divide and arming policymakers and practitioners with the data they need to bridge it.