Spring 2013

Digital Learning

The Unique Policy Opportunities Afforded by Today’s Funding Challenges

The Unique Policy Opportunities Afforded by Today’s Funding Challenges

As the nation continues to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression, it is becoming abundantly clear that the funding levels of our nation’s schools are not going to return to pre-recession levels. This funding crisis presents an unprecedented opportunity to recreate the current K-12 landscape.

As the nation continues to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression, it is becoming abundantly clear that the funding levels of our nation’s schools are not going to return to pre-recession levels. This funding crisis presents an unprecedented opportunity to recreate the current K-12 landscape. The impact of the recession, compounded by the loss of federal funding due to sequestration, provides an opportunity for all governance levels of the current system to revolutionize how we are delivering education. In order to be effective, every level of our education system must use this funding crisis to create solutions that promote and expand digital and blended learning. These strategies may help to provide some relief to the nation’s funding challenges. Now is the time for education stakeholders to take bold steps to create a new system that leverages digital and blended learning techniques that will provide unprecedented access and expanded experiences to all the nation’s learners — wherever they live and whatever their personal situation.

Federal Policy Opportunities

At the federal level, expanded use of Title I and II funds would give states and school systems greater flexibility and autonomy in the use of federal funds to acquire, develop and expand digital and blended resources. Combining this flexibility with the further development and expansion of teacher training on the effective use of these resources will enable and empower the next generation of educators to fully leverage technology and unleash the power of a learner centric system. Digital and blended learning strategies are essential to the United States’ efforts to compete with other nations at preparing learners to succeed in the rapidly expanding technological economy. Federal policies must allow for greater flexibility in the use of Title I and II funds to facilitate the widespread use of digital and blended learning strategies as economical and effective solutions. In the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Congress must include language that allows for the use of federal funds for the widespread implementation of digital learning and technology. The creation of autonomy and flexibility must be explicitly defined so that states clearly understand their authority to use Title I and II funds to establish these solutions. The defined use of Title II funds must specifically allow for expanded teacher preparation and training in the use of effective digital and blended learning techniques.

Digital and blended learning strategies are essential to the United States’ efforts to compete with other nations at preparing learners to succeed in the rapidly expanding technological economy.

As the amount of available discretionary federal funding continues to remain in question and the federal government remains stifled by sequestration and budget negotiations, states are struggling to find the funding dollars necessary to maintain their traditional institutions and programs. Most states are being forced to confront the reality that federal funding levels will not return to pre-recession levels at any time in the foreseeable future. Rather than continuing to try to find ways to fund the current system, states should consider this funding crisis as the impetus to revolutionize their delivery systems for the 21st century learner. Now is the perfect time to seize the funding challenges as a rationale to shed the limiting structure of our current instructional delivery method, which reached its maximum capacity long ago. This outdated model cannot be tweaked into better performance but needs to be wholly replaced with a modern system designed to meet the constantly evolving needs and expectations of today’s learner.

State Policy Opportunities

States must adopt policies that encourage the continued expansion and use of digital and blended learning methods in all of their school systems and schools. Issues that need to be addressed in state laws, regulations and policies include:

  • allowing for individual learners to receive credit for the mastery of skills in a digital and/or blended learning environment;
  • replacing the concept of Carnegie units with a mastery of content based system of credits and advancement;
  • providing ways to award credit for courses that are taken through digital providers, regardless of where the courses are physically generated and transmitted;
  • creating more pathways by which providers can be recognized as digital learning providers;
  • establishing funding to create teacher education programs that advance the use of digital learning as an effective alternative to our traditional system; and
  • establishing aligned systems of data to drive personalized instruction based upon both summative and formative assessments.

As the concept of anytime, anywhere learning continues to take hold, states must adopt policies that will allow learners to pursue learning opportunities limited not by geography but only by the limits of their academic abilities. States must also adapt their school system, school and student funding formulas, graduation requirements and attendance requirements and begin to provide non-time based pathways for matriculation and graduation.

State Policy Initiatives

During the past year, Florida, Georgia and Michigan reinforced their commitment to digital education by enacting policy changes that will continue to expand the availability, recognition and access of digital courses to a wider range of student age groups. Further, Florida established a funding link to the end of course exams, whether the courses are taken in an online environment or a traditional school. Georgia created a framework by which a digital provider can be recognized by the Georgia Department of Education. Michigan, along with providing technology for students and information for parents, provided for the increase in approved cyber schools and the further expansion of these schools’ student rosters from 2,500 students to 10,000.

Ohio and California enacted policies that enabled school systems to implement digital and blended learning by addressing issues of attendance, teacher/student ratios and access to digital learning tools. Iowa has enacted policies that will begin to offer avenues of personalized learning and student-centered accountability. The state is challenging the traditional role of the Carnegie system as it attempts to create a new competency-based system.

Maryland, Minnesota and Washington all have recognized the challenge in preparing teachers to address the needs of digital and blended learners. Hopefully, these policies will provide other states with ideas on how to create effective teacher preparation systems compatible with the digital learning environment. These preparation systems are vital to creating, scaling and maintaining the new learning environment.

Local Policy Opportunities

Local school systems must be afforded the ability to create or leverage the accessibility of digital learning resources as a means to provide equity in the opportunities afforded all students, as well as meet the unprecedented funding challenges. As students begin to access learning opportunities outside their traditional brick and mortar buildings, districts will be expected to create new methods for determining the funding of individual schools. Superintendents and local Boards of Education will be confronted with the difficult reality of enacting policies that adapt to the necessity of fewer schools, allow for the implementation of flexible learning hours, provide educators with the opportunity to obtain training in the effective use of digital and blended learning techniques, and find ways to leverage the talents of their systems’ best instructors through technology.

School systems must redesign and reorganize more than just the physical environment of the traditional brick and mortar school. Local systems must revolutionize even the most basic ways in which they operate. Expanded hours and services at schools must be implemented to meet the reality that future learning is not simply taking place between the hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The personal needs of today’s learners are far different than those of past generations. To be truly effective, Superintendents and local Boards of Education must work together to challenge the old model of educational delivery in order to effectively meet the needs of today’s learners.

The funding challenges at all levels of our education system provide us with a unique opportunity to revolutionize the way educational opportunities are distributed and delivered. The challenge before us is to create laws, regulations and policies that build the foundation for this new system while meeting the needs of today’s learners. Many have already begun to close the door on the old brick and mortar system, now we must work to construct the new system designed to open not a school but a world of learning for all.

For additional information on the digital policies enacted by states, see The Ten Biggest Policy Winds since Digital Learning Day 2012, by Lillian Pace, February 1, 2013.

Kenneth I. Bergman serves as Chief Legal Officer for AdvancED and handles legal matters ranging from intellectual property; statutory, regulatory and legislative analysis; contract review and negotiation; and drafting of corporate and legal documents. He also provides advice and guidance on AdvancED corporate and accreditation issues, as well as training on a variety of Board and Governance issues. He is a former partner in the law firm Dreger, Coyle, Bergman, Pieschel & Reemsnyder, LLC. Mr. Bergman earned his Juris Doctor and Bachelor of Arts degrees from Emory University.