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Some see blended learning as future of education

Interactive and adaptive learning technologies can help advance U.S. education, experts say.

More and more school districts are embracing digital learning as the next step in improving education, and a number of stakeholder groups are hoping to guide policy makers in their efforts to implement state-level online learning policies.

A Jan. 11 International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) webinar focused on the continued work of the Digital Learning Council on the reform needed to provide all students with the opportunity to engage in high-quality online learning.

The Digital Learning Council was established in 2012 when former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and former Democratic Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia came together to create implementation guidelines for states and schools.

“In 2011, sixteen states enacted legislation related to online learning,” said Susan Patrick, President and CEO of iNACOL.  “But there are still policy barriers that hinder student access and equity. While we continue to see K-12 online and blended learning programs grow at a rapid pace on a national scale with strong demand from students interested in online courses, the growth remains uneven state by state.”

Digital learning can be defined as any kind of learning using technology and giving students some type of control over where, how, and what they learn, said Deirdre Finn, deputy executive director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

“We think we’re entering a really exciting time, where students are going to be able to embrace new learning technologies,” including technologies that let students truly customize education to their own learning style and pace, Finn said.

New digital learning technologies are interactive, adaptive, and provide real-time data that educators can use to immediately tailor instruction to students who might need extra attention or more time with a given concept.

Interactive, adaptive content will improve the quality of digital learning, she added.

“We think the future rests with blended learning,” Finn said.

“At some point, we’ll get to a model school system where every student will be different,” said Chip Slaven, a senior advocacy associate for the Alliance for Excellent Education. Digital learning and digital content will help educators and students take a much more personalized approach to learning.

“Teachers can really do what they can’t do now, and that is spend a lot of time with each student—that’s a great model for us to strive for,” Slaven said.

“The most important thing is that there is data,” he added. “Students are taking formative assessments every time they take a lesson or a unit, and if they aren’t performing well, the teacher can know that because they’ll be able to look at the feedback and instantaneous results.”

Blended learning must combine technology and tools with policies and a solid plan if it is to be successful, he said.

“I think the choice shouldn’t be between full-time traditional school and full-time virtual school,” Finn said. Different learning options mean that students can travel to a structured setting such as a brick-and-mortar school and receive instruction delivered by technology, or they can take all of their instruction at home over the computer.

Policy makers can be confused by what it means to have a virtual school, Finn said. Thinking about virtual education as something other than having the ability to take one course online can open up opportunities for many students, and can “increase access to STEM, especially as budgets in states are under more and more pressure. These are opportunities to provide a rich offering of high-quality courses in a very cost-efficient deliver mechanism.”

“The blended concept is one of the most difficult concepts to convey to policy leaders,” Finn said. “It really is the future of education,” but it will require specific decisions about how education leaders and policy makers want to provide education.

Finn reviewed the 10 Elements of High-Quality Digital Learning from the Digital Learning Council, which advocates policies that will create a high quality digital learning environment to better prepare students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and careers.

The elements are:

  1. Student access
  2. Breaking down barriers to access
  3. Personalized learning
  4. Advancement
  5. Quality content
  6. Quality instruction
  7. Quality choices
  8. Assessment and accountability
  9. Funding
  10. Infrastructure

Click here to learn more about each element.

“We have to lay groundwork for why we need these elements and how they all fit together,” Slaven said. For instance, without the proper infrastructure, none of the other elements will work.

After defining the 10 elements, the Digital Learning Council developed specific measures—72 in all—that states can take to achieve each element. Those measures are designed to create specific guidance for lawmakers and policy makers as they transition to an education system that leverages technology to improve student outcomes, Finn said.

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