Four Implementation Challenges for High Quality Digital Learning

Originally published by the PIE Network

Also from ES | September 19, 2011
Related Issue(s): K-12 Education, Virtual Learning

In statehouses nationwide, online and blended learning has prompted a flurry of legislation. More than one million students in grades K through 12 now pursue such programs, collectively known as digital learning, and over the next several years the numbers are expected to substantially grow.

There is great promise. Digital learning has the potential to personalize learning to meet each student’s needs, ensure all students have access to quality teaching, extend learning opportunities to all hours of the day and all days of the week, and innovate and improve over time. Indeed, there is the potential not only to help solve many of the most pressing issues in K–12 education, but to do so in a cost-effective manner. Because of this, it’s clear that advocates will be increasingly successful in changing policies to open up access to digital learning throughout our nation.

But, as any cursory look at the public charter school sector reveals, opening up policies to innovation is necessary, but not nearly sufficient. Policies now being created and implemented are likely to ensure that more students have access to more digital options, but they are lagging in ensuring that these options are high quality and, more importantly, that they are tied to improved student outcomes. With the charter school movement we have seen elegant theories behind choice, multiple providers, and accountability all too often crumble against the reality of implementation. And, as Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning, the field’s own annual progress report, notes, unless we begin to think seriously about the mechanisms, incentives, and institutions to support these ideas, we run the risk that digital learning may become ubiquitous but not transformative; commonly available but without improved outcomes.

Over the past year, my colleagues and I at Education Sector have searched for lessons from not only charter schools and higher education, but more importantly, also from the actual implementation of online learning in states across the country. Based on this research, there are at least four big challenges that policy makers must confront. And, while public policy is important to each of them, creating the right environment for growth will also require actions from strong non-governmental actors, including philanthropy, community-based and advocacy organizations, schools, and digital learning providers themselves.

  1. Helping students, families, and schools make choices Despite the push for states to allow students to choose among multiple online learning providers, there’s been almost no attention to how students and families actually make choices. For example, Education Sector’s exploration of data from Ohio’s decade-old e-Schools program shows little relationship between a school’s enrollment and its rating on the Ohio school performance index. And, despite statewide open enrollment options, many students choose poor performing, locally-based programs.

    Virginia, which is just now implementing legislation to allow “multi-division” (statewide) providers, offers another example of why the actual implementation of choice matters. To provide “consumer” information, the state has posted PDFs from provider applications, most of which consist almost entirely of self-reported, input-based, marketing information ( reality, most parents will get their information from either advertising or the local school division, which may have selected its own preferred providers.

    Even highly motivated parents face challenges when seeking basic information. Throughout our exploration of both Ohio’s e-Schools and Pennsylvania’s online charter sector, we found numerous examples where it was almost impossible to figure out who actually governed and managed a school. Expand choice to dozens of providers across hundreds of potential online courses and the challenge becomes even greater (think supplemental education services under NCLB).

    Policymakers must ensure transparency—policies that mandate disclosure of useful information—and at the same time, foster mechanisms that enable non-governmental actors to take the disclosed information and translate it in a way to help families make informed choices. While government regulation should set basic standards for quality and accountability, we need other tools, such as market- and reputation-based accountability, to complement government regulation and provide aspirational incentives for schools to excel on dimensions beyond these basic standards. These additional tools, including not just stand-alone guides and ratings systems, but also organizations committed to ongoing monitoring and analysis, can help ensure that students have real choice and options to find the best fit. They would also ensure that local families or districts making decisions in one state understand a provider’s track record across the country. Better information across districts and states will foster incentives to ensure high quality everywhere–and ideally, punish providers that neglect their duties in any one place.

    Digital learning providers, education advocates, and philanthropic organizations can also help address these issues. High quality providers can set the expectations in the market for transparency and reporting outcomes—– either in collaboration or by taking market leadership. Others will by necessity follow. And, philanthropy should use its resources and nimbleness to sponsor research and foster non-governmental actors, tools, and guidance to support better choices. ...Read the rest of this essay on the PIE Network's website.