The Digital Learning Council's blueprint aims to personalize learning.

Digital and blended learning opportunities have the potential to improve U.S. education dramatically, because they can help teachers provide a more personal learning experience for their students, according to the Digital Learning Council (DLC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group led by former governors Bob Wise of West Virginia, a Democrat, and Jeb Bush of Florida, a Republican. But for this to happen, policy makers must remove barriers to digital learning such as archaic school funding formulas and seat-time requirements, the council argues.

The DLC on Dec. 1 introduced its “Ten Elements of High-Quality Digital Learning,” a blueprint for how digital learning can transform education. On Dec. 2, the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), of which Wise is president, held a webinar to discuss the DLC’s blueprint.

“Students today are living in a digital age, and they are learning digitally everywhere except for school,” said Wise. “If you are eligible for public school, you should be eligible for publicly-funded digital learning.”

Panelists addressed three looming challenges facing the education system: declining fiscal revenues, a mounting teacher shortage, and increased demand for skilled workers. While the demand for highly skilled workers is increasing, the webinar noted, only seven out of 10 students graduate from high school, and only half of those graduates are college and work ready. Panelists said they believe digital and blended learning can help the U.S. overcome these issues.

“When [students] sit in a classroom lined up in desks with a single textbook, a single lecture, and a single teacher trying to convey information to them, it shuts them down,” said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning and an executive DLC committee member.

“Every student deserves a world-class education, and we can provide that through digital learning,” said Patrick.

Patrick and fellow panelist Lisa Gillis, project director of the DLC and author of Virtual Schooling, believe schooling can be greatly improved through the use of blended learning that provides more personalized instruction. Blended learning combines live teaching and a variety of technological tools, including online learning, to educate students.

“One of the hardest things we see happening today is when students have those big gaps over their educational career, they get into high school and they don’t have any time to go back and fill them in,” said Patrick. “There’s no reason we can’t build those building blocks so every student can be successful and graduate with the skills they need for college. This is very hard to do without good technology, but the technology is here now, so this is the time.”

“In a digital learning environment, students can actually learn at their own pace, and the curriculum can adapt on a lesson-by-lesson basis,” said Gillis. Patrick and Gillis explained that with a digital learning program, students can be assessed as they finished each lesson and wouldn’t progress to subsequent teachings until they had mastered the current one.

“There’s a new accountability that comes along with that. Instead of checking the dipstick in your car at the end of the year, the assessment-based learning for each individual student lets them know how they’re progressing. We’re focusing back on the instruction of the teacher in the classroom,” said Patrick.

“It’s not just a one snapshot in time, on one day, on one standardized test,” added Gillis.

Gillis said she believes access to technology must be worked into schools’ infrastructure.

“If we take a strategic approach in our schools and in our communities to identify gaps and who needs access, there are strategies for providing computers for students at home, [and] being able to fill those gaps so every student has access to some sort of computing device,” said Gillis. “Students come to school every day with computers in their pockets, so why don’t we access that as well?” she asked, referring to the widespread use of smart phones and other personal computing devices.

The DLC’s “10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning” are as follows:

  1. Student Eligibility: All students are digital learners.
  2. Student Access: All students have access to high-quality digital content and online courses.
  3. Personalized Learning: All students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider.
  4. Advancement: Students progress based on demonstrated competency, instead of rigid seat-time requirements.
  5. Content: Digital content, instructional materials, and online and blended learning courses are high quality.
  6. Instruction: Digital instruction and teachers are high quality.
  7. Providers: All students have access to multiple, high-quality providers.
  8. Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating quality of content and instruction.
  9. Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options, and innovation.
  10. Delivery: Infrastructure supports digital learning.

Gillis said the DLC’s recommendations are an important step in advancing digital learning to all students.

“We want to remove the barriers of constraint of time. We want to remove the problems of funding and access and this document will do that,” she said.