3 predictors of strong digital learning

Annual report focuses on nationwide digital learning trends, opportunities

digital-paceStudent choice at the state level, student choice at the course level, and the existence and strength of charter school laws are three predictors of how strong a state’s digital learning opportunities are likely to be, according to a new report released on Nov. 3.

Overall, more students than ever before have access to digital learning opportunities, including online and blended learning, but state policies and other factors often limit digital learning’s availability.

The 2014 edition of Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning, researched and written by the Evergreen Education Group, examines the state of digital learning today and highlights the need for high-quality, actionable data on the digital learning tools and methods students use.

“Digital learning is not really new anymore, [although] it continues to be innovative in all sorts of ways,” said John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group and the report’s main author.

Eleven years ago, most digital learning activity happened at the state level–for instance, through state online learning schools, he said.

“Those types of programs and schools continue to be critical,” Watson said. “But we’re also seeing an increasing amount of activity happening at the local level, with digital learning being used by school districts in traditional physical schools at the local level. Much of that activity is blending online and onsite components–that’s the overall trend we’re seeing.”

(Next page: Policies that indicate the strength of digital learning)

Watson outlined four main reasons schools are increasingly incorporating digital learning opportunities into teaching and learning:
1. Improving student access to a variety of schooling options
2. Ensuring that students reach their maximum achievement levels
3. Increasing technology skills, which parents, teachers, and stakeholders believe to be essential for college- and career-ready students
4. Reducing costs

Most school districts use digital learning tools and resources, but the extent, type, and goal of that use vary widely.

Different grades use digital content and tools differently, too, according to the report:

  • High schools tend to offer fully online courses and many forms of digital content.
  • Elementary schools tend to offer self-paced interactive activities that are topic-focused and collaborative
  • Middle schools are a hybrid of high schools and elementary schools, in which younger middle school students are more likely to use interactive and skill-based lessons, while older middle school students use other forms of digital content and begin venturing into online learning opportunities

When taken together, the authors write, three policies indicate the level of digital learning in a state.

School-level student choice

Fully-online schools often depend on statewide student populations to enroll enough students. The authors note that these schools tend to “exist in states in which students are able to choose a school from outside their district of residence.”

Existence and strength of charter school laws

Charter schools that are either fully online or that use digital content and tools to implement innovative instruction play a role in digital learning.

Course-level student choice

This is “perhaps the single most important emerging issue related to online learning,” the authors note. The report draws on the Florida Virtual School model and claims that “if students are freely given the option to take an online course, many hundreds of thousands will choose to do so.”

When school-level student choice and the existence and strength of charter school laws are examined as a pair, they “largely determine the states that have fully online schools operating across the entire state. Thirty states have these types of schools, and across all states 316,320 students attended these schools in SY 2013–14, an annual increase of 6.2 percent. Many of the fully online schools are charter schools, and others are schools run by districts that attract students from other districts across the state,” according to the report.

Other policies influencing digital learning are funding, computer-based assessments, and information privacy laws.

The report offers in-depth profiles of state policies that impact digital learning, including:

  • Colorado has a two-year pilot that lets Title I funds go to online schools
  • Ohio directed $6 million, over two years, for competitive grants to public and chartered nonpublic schools that participate in the state’s Electronic Textbook Pilot Project
  • Wisconsin has developed policy that defines and implements the state’s Course Options program, which lets students take two online courses for free

For full state profiles and more details, download the report here.

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