A new report on eLearning urges state lawmakers and boards of education to lead education into the 21st century by rethinking education policies, guaranteeing equity for all learners, and delivering high-quality online instruction.

The nearly $7 billion that schools spend each year on technology has resulted in “islands of innovation,” the report says. But the quality of these programs varies widely, and poor and minority students often are excluded.

The study, “Any Time, Any Place, Any Path, Any Pace: Taking the Lead on eLearning Policy,” was released Oct. 19 by the National Association of the State Boards of Education (NASBE) after a year-long development process.

Twenty state board members representing 16 states studied literature, heard presentations, and participated in group discussions to produce this 54-page report intended as a policy handbook for decision makers.

“The report is an outline or blueprint for other members as they decide policy in their own states,” said David Griffith, director of public affairs at NASBE. “Our focus is directed toward state policy level, but we have found our reports are also applicable at the local level.”

The group chose this subject because so many education leaders are not conscious of educational technology trends, Griffith said.

“Unfortunately, education is woefully behind the curve when it comes to technology,” he said. “Modem speeds are doubling and computer speed is increasing, and it’s hard for schools to keep up.”

According to NASBE’s report, preliminary research shows that eLearning has had a positive impact on student achievement, but much more needs to be done.

“State education policy makers should seize the opportunity to take the lead and move decisively to assure that eLearning spreads rapidly and equitably, is used well, and strengthens the public education system,” it says.

“There are a lot of good things being done with eLearning and a lot of not-so-good things being done,” Griffith said. “Policy makers have to catch up.”

The report outlines some of the policy changes school leaders should undertake to make eLearning effective and, in some cases, possible.

“The very basics of the school building, the school day, even the classroom teacher at the blackboard with students sitting at their desks are all open for reconsideration,” said Brenda Welburn, executive director of NASBE.

The report urges state policy makers to:

  • Revise what should be stressed in academic standards;

  • Develop and implement computer-based assessment systems;

  • Revise all policies that inhibit eLearning;

  • Empower families with educational choices; and

  • Enact policies that allow for collaboration between different states.

According to the report, a state’s method of assessment should reflect its method of instruction. If technology is used in instruction, it should also be used for testing.

“The cost of developing new state assessments is significant, [but] once they are up and running a state will almost certainly save a considerable amount of money in staff time, printing, warehousing, and shipping costs” by implementing online assessments, the report says. Oregon paid nearly $600,000 a year for its online testing program, and Virginia paid more then $2 million on a demonstration program in nine high schools.

With an electronic assessment system, Florida is able to track students’ progress from year to year, and Texas can track migrant students as they move from school to school.

Not all students have to be tested at the same time. For example, the Edison Schools test students periodically and document the results in a digital portfolio.

In addition, the report says state school boards should lead the effort in ensuring equity to all learners, regardless of their location, family or cultural background, or disability, by:

  • Establishing well-prepared, well-supported teachers who are equitably deployed;

  • Providing access to hardware, software, and fast internet connections at school;

  • Offering after-school access to eLearning opportunities; and

  • Supplying assistive technologies to special-needs students.

North Carolina was one of the first states to implement technology standards for teachers, through a program called the Technology Competencies for Educators. Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia also have technology components in their recertification requirements but—to date—34 states do not.

In addition, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Louisiana operate comprehensive technology professional development programs for teachers, the report states.

Lastly, the report recommends that state boards regulate the quality of eLearning instruction by:

  • Establishing policies and procedures for students taking credits online;

  • Determining ways to provide a wide range of eLearning resources; and

  • Revisiting policies that govern internet use and protect student privacy.

Paying for the development of online courses is a big issue for state school boards, because development costs can be quite high. The Illinois Virtual High School devised an economical solution by requiring each school to contribute online courses and instruction in proportion to the number of its students enrolled in the state’s virtual school.

Other states offer small grants to schools who get teachers to develop online courses during the summer.

“The report doesn’t have all the answers, but it doesn’t have all the questions, either,” Griffith said. “It just raises the main issues.”

Its main goal is to help school leaders take revolutionary steps and refocus efforts on building a global community of learners through technology. According to Kathleen Fulton, former project director of the Web-based Education Commission, the report looks like it might be successful.

“It will shake up the status quo in a way few education reports have done before,” Fulton predicted. “The tone is strong and urgent, the examples are compelling, the research is convincing, the resources are invaluable, and, most importantly, the policy opportunities are clearly focused and right on target.”

The Milken Family Foundation, Lightspan Inc., and NetSchools Corp. sponsored the report, which can be downloaded from NASBE’s web site.

Links:

National Association of State Boards of Education
http://www.nasbe.org

Milken Family Foundation
http://www.mff.org

Lightspan Inc.
http://www.lightspan.com

NetSchools Corp.
http://www.netschools.com