Report: Federal action needed to expand digital learning

An Alliance for Excellent Education report says educational technology should be an integral part of all federal education programs.

As schools increasingly embrace digital learning, a new report says more federal action is needed to encourage the effective use of educational technology.

The Alliance for Excellent Education hosted a recent webinar to discuss its report, which highlights examples of successful digital learning around the country and recommends several steps for the federal government to take in order to build on this success and bring it to scale nationwide.

“We are moving from a predominantly print-based to a digital learning environment,” said Karen Cator, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), noting why now is the perfect moment for more government action.

“From Gutenberg to gigabytes,” added webinar host Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, co-chair of the Digital Learning Council (DLC) project, and former governor of West Virginia.

According to the report, “Digital Learning and Technology: Federal Policy Recommendations to Seize the Opportunity—and Promising Practices That Inspire Them,” the federal government should do more to help state and local education systems with this major transition in education.

In particular, the report says, the government should:

1. Infuse technology throughout all federal education programs.

2. Restore the dedicated funding stream for educational technology that was lost when the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program was not funded in the last federal budget.

3. Encourage states to implement the 10 recommendations from the Digital Learning Council (DLC), a bipartisan group led by Wise and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. These recommendations include moving from seat time to competency as a measure of student advancement, and ensuring that all students have access to high-quality digital learning opportunities.

4. Build on the recommendations from the National Educational Technology Plan and the National Broadband Plan in any future education legislation.

5. Invest in ongoing educational technology research and innovation.

Pointing to examples of existing success at schools in multiple states, the report says using educational technology can increase equity and access, maximize teacher and administrator effectiveness, and ultimately improve student outcomes.

For all students, and especially for students in rural areas, technology can boost achievement by presenting a wider range of course offerings and a more personalized learning experience, the report argues.

Furthermore, effective technology application can help educators across the country collaborate on strategies to meet the Common Core state standards already adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia, it says.

“Through technology, we can provide every student [with] access to a high-quality education that is tailored to their learning pace, style, and interests,” said Jeb Bush in a statement. “Yet, the U.S. education system currently operates as an eight-track tape in an iPod world. Students deserve better.”

The report highlights opportunities for the federal government to spread these positive results by supporting digital learning. In particular, the report calls for a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as No Child Left Behind) that will encourage states and districts to use educational technology.

Acknowledging the difficulty of implementing digital learning programs in cash-strapped schools, the report calls for federal policy with specific language that identifies educational technology as an allowable use of funds throughout all federal programs. The report also suggests the enactment of a federal funding stream dedicated to innovative instruction methods, such as digital learning, which it says the ATTAIN Act now pending in Congress would do.

“We need to carefully, thoughtfully not leave behind the best of what we know from a print-based classroom, but leverage the best of what technology can bring us,” Cator said.

The report also encourages federal policy makers to build upon the recently released National Education Technology Plan and National Broadband Plan, and to encourage states to implement the “10 Elements of High-Quality Digital Learning” released by the DLC.

What’s more, it urges lawmakers to act on the Obama administration’s suggestion to create an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-ED), which would be modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). As DARPA funds research and innovation in using technology for national defense, ARPA-ED would do the same for education.

“America has only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible with technology and digital learning in the area of education,” Wise said, comparing the U.S. education system to the outdated car industry, “designed for a time when the Model T-Ford was new on the scene.”

Schools need a makeover now more than ever, Cator and Wise agreed. The experts framed the imperative to update the education system as an issue of economics, national security, and social justice.

Wise summarized the three “looming crises” that he pinpointed in his 2010 brief, “The Online Learning Imperative”: declining state fiscal revenues, a mounting teacher shortage, and increasing global need for workers with post-secondary education.

Cator emphasized the need to increase student achievement, close the achievement gap, and prepare students for a future submerged in technology.

“We just can’t let one more class graduate—or not graduate—without really fixing this crisis,” she said.

Wise and Cator repeatedly stressed that technology should be an important part of any solution to the education system’s problems.

“Digital learning and technology are not silver bullets,” Wise said. “But they do provide us with a great opportunity to provide the tools and innovation to create a more engaging and personalized education for all of our students.”

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