Dimensions of digital learning are often misunderstood

Late last week I had the opportunity to join a panel discussion at a conference of the Education Writers Association, along with Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado National Education Policy Center, and Mickey Revenaugh of Pearson and iNACOL. I had the opportunity to give a five-minute opening to our discussion, and I’m repeating the major points here. These will likely be familiar to most Keeping Pace report and blog readers, but it’s valuable for people who are deeply involved in digital learning to recall that there are constantly reporters, researchers, families, and policymakers who are exploring digital learning for the first time—as evidenced by the recent Atlantic article on digital learning. Digital learning can be very difficult to understand for those who are new to it, and it is not unusual to see confusion about the differences between various types of programs. Confusion is exacerbated by the names of digital learning organizations. For example, neither the Georgia Virtual School (GAVS) nor the Montana Digital Academy (MTDA) are schools, based on the typical definition of a school which includes enrolling students, and in the case of public schools, administering state assessments. GAVS and MTDA provide supplemental online courses to students across their respective states. But the Colorado Virtual Academy and the Iowa Virtual Academy are schools based on the usual definition—they enroll students and give state assessments.

There are three dimensions along which most digital learning schools, programs, or providers can be placed. These are:

  1. Does the program provide a full-time education for students, or supplemental courses?
  1. Is the program fully online or blended? A useful way to think about this dimension is whether students and teachers are always, sometimes, or never face-to-face.
  1. Is the program operated at the state level and working with students statewide, or is it at the district or school level?

Answering these questions about a digital learning program doesn’t describe everything about the program, but addressing the questions would go a long way towards alleviating the confusion that is created by people who write or talk in ways that conflate programs that are different in important ways.

And if you’re among the people to whom these distinctions are obvious, remember that for many people the categories are not clear.