Buckeye-Style E-Learning

At its heart, is e-learning about improving educational opportunity or lowering instructional costs?  Last week, Eduflack was talking with a school district in West Virginia.  Following a growing wave, school districts in the Mountain State are prohibiting new textbook purchases in a tough budget environment.  As an alternative, districts are being directed to use e-learning to replace textbook adoptions and ensure students have up-to-date learning materials.

But in a district that doesn’t have the technology to deliver optimum e-learning, is such digital instruction really a cost saver?  Do we get around that $100 textbook, which is usually good for seven or nine years, by purchasing a low-cost laptop (which have to be replaced often due to loss, breakage, or general wear-and-tear) and then purchasing the curriculum and other instructional needs?  Are there enough high-quality open educational resources (OER) to secure the free digital instructional materials to effectively replace a textbook and its supplementary materials?  And does making the shift from paper to electronic actually boost student achievement and school effectiveness?
These are some of the questions that many are working to find answers to.  Late last year, the Foundation for Excellence in Education released its Digital Learning Now! report as part of the coming out of its Digital Learning Council.  The report offers up 10 reccs for high-quality digital learning.  Written specifically for governors and state-level policy makers, the Foundation makes clear that real action on e-learning is going to happen in state capitals, and not necessarily in our nation’s capital.
Next week, it looks like the discussion is going to drill down even further.  Some of the true leaders in e-learning will gather in Columbus, Ohio to talk about how digital learning can have a positive impact on education in Ohio and in the United States.  Those in politics know that as goes Ohio (or maybe Missouri), so goes the nation.  We also know that the Buckeye State now has a new, cost-conscious governor and a state budget in need of significant reductions.
So on Tuesday, leaders from Ohio’s business and education sectors, as well as the community at large, will hear from folks like Bob Wise, former West Virginia governor and current President of the Alliance for Excellent Education: Andy Ross, the GM of Global Services for Florida Virtual School; and Tom Vander Ark, partner at Vander Ark/Radcliff and e-learning connector extraordinaire.  They’ll also hear the Ohio perspective from KnowledgeWorks CEO Chad Wick and Ohio Education Matters ED Andy Benson.
Why is this summit important?  For one, it signals that a state like Ohio is serious about re-imagining the K-12 experience and exploring what a 21st century education really looks like.  More importantly, though, it is looking to do so through a practical lens, where the hopes and aspirations of e-learning will be explored through the very-real view of the very-scary Ohio budget.
We also know that if the intellectual firepower speaking from the rostrum in Columbus on the 25th can’t figure out how to make this work in Ohio, no one can.  Florida Virtual School is the gold standard when it comes to online learning in the K-12 environment.  Vander Ark/Radcliff has led the primary drumbeat for successful digital learning leadership, particularly at the state level.  And KnowledgeWorks has successfully led change in Ohio’s high schools through its Ohio High Schools Transformation Initiative and its NewTech Network.  So it looks like the e-learning A team will be in the house, ready to “dot the i.”
Hopefully, we will see a real action plan coming out of this Learning Unbound summit.  A plan that Ohio Gov. John Kasich can adopt as part of his leaner, ROI-focused budget and a plan on which other states can model their own e-learning opportunities.  That isn’t too much to ask for, is it, A focused plan of action coming out of a positive day of rhetoric?

Real 21st Century Ed Tech?

As a nation, we tend to give a great deal of lip service to the idea of a 21st century education.  Such a notion is particularly popular when international achievement rankings come out, when we see how the United States stacks up to other industrialized nations, and we all seem to preach on the need to provide a 21st century education to lead to 21st century jobs and a 21st century economy.

Can we really provide a 21st century education without focusing on the role of technology in the process?  While technology remains at the center of many an American life, our schools are still constructed around a 19th century instructional model.  Rows of desks.  A single teacher lecturing.  And technology turned off and put away.  We literally unplug many of our students as they step through the schoolhouse doors.
Yes, the White House paid note to the value of education technology last year, as it pledged to better integrate ed tech throughout the federal ESEA process.  And U.S. Department of Education officials such as Karen Cator have long been advocating for the National Education Technology Plan released late last year.  But how do such commitments translate into action items that are felt in classrooms across the country?
Yesterday, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) released An Ed Tech Trio for 2011: ISTE’s U.S. Education Technology Priorities.  Following up on its popular Top 10 list of ed tech issues last year, ISTE’s Ed Tech Trio keys in on specific, actionable items that Congress can take on to demonstrate a true commitment to ed tech.  The trifecta includes:
* Providing dedicated federal funding for ed tech programs such as Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) and Preparing Teachers for Digital Age Learners Act (PTDAL)
* Demanding that federal school turnaround efforts, including Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation, include an ed tech component
* Ensuring broadband for all students, both in the classroom and outside of classroom hours
It is no secret that well-conceived ed tech can serve an important role in addressing all four of the education pillars moved forward by EdSec Arne Duncan and the ESEA blueprint last year.  From standards to data systems, teacher quality to turnaround schools, ed tech can and does play an essential role.  For instance, programs like EETT (which has never been adequately funded by Congress) provide invaluable professional development and support in ed tech for classroom teachers. 
At the end of the day, funding is king in the world of education priorities.  If Congress is serious about ed tech, it’ll again find a way to fund efforts such as EETT.  It’ll find the funding to match the promise in the recently signed American COMPETES Act, which moves our STEM commitment forward.  And it will even direct specific dollars to ensure that NETP is acted on in classrooms across the country.
It’s time to plug our classrooms back in and provide all students the true 21st century education we just love to talk about.  After all, do we really think we can move toward an instructional world filled with e-learning and virtual schools and OER if we don’t have teachers trained on technology and broadband in all schools?
(Full disclosure, Eduflack has advised ISTE and other ed tech groups over the years.)

Some Resolutions for 2011

Another year about to go down in the history books.  Are we any closer to truly improving our public schools?  For every likely step forward we may have taken in 2010, it seems to be met with a similar step back.  For every rhetorical push ahead, we had a very real headwind blocking progress. 

So as we head into 2011, your friendly neighborhood Eduflack offers up a few “resolutions” for all on the education reform boat to consider as we start a new year.  We need to come to accept the following:
1.  True reform does not happen at the federal level.  The federal government is an important lever in the school improvement process, offering some necessary financial resources and some bully pulpit language to inspire reform.  But true improvement happens at the state and local levels.  It is about what our SEAs and LEAs do with those resources and whether they embrace the call from the bully pulpit.  Just as all politics is local, so too is all education reform.  Why do you think groups like DFER are so keen on launching new statewide efforts, like the new one in California?
2.  ESEA reauthorization really doesn’t matter.  As much as we want to fret about when ESEA is going to be reauthorized and what will and won’t be included, it doesn’t have much impact on the game at hand.  At the end of the day, EdSec Duncan could work from the current NCLB, make a few tweaks, and be just fine for the next few years.  Those thinking a major sea change is coming with reauth will be sadly mistaken.  If we see reauth this year (put at about 60 percent), expect it to simply be a kinder, gentler NCLB.  Nothing more.
3. Education technology matters.  For years now, we’ve placed ed tech in the perifery when it comes to school improvement, trying to define it as simply the adoption of a particular piece of hardware.  Ed tech needs to be at the center of 21st century school improvement.  It is important to instruction and student achievement, teacher quality, and all-around turnaround efforts.  If we are to realize its impact, we need to ensure it is a non-negotiable in the process.
4. We cannot forget about reading instruction.  Nine years ago, Reading First was born, emphasizing the importance of literacy instruction in the elementary grades.  We cannot boost student test scores and we cannot ensure that all kids are college and career ready if everyone isn’t reading at grade level.  RF taught us a great deal on how to teach reading (and how not to advocate it politically).  Building on those lessons, we need to redouble our efforts to get each and every child reading proficient.  And that now includes focusing on middle and high schools, where too many students have fallen between the cracks.
5. Superintendents matter.  Many of our largest and most influential school districts will experience change at the top this coming year.  These new leaders can’t forget that the role of instructional leader is essential to their success.  Shaking things up is good.  Sweeping out the old is fine.  Doing things differently is great.  But at the end of the day, being a superintendent is all about teaching and learning and measurement.  Magazine covers are nice, but rising test scores are far more rewarding.
6. We still need to figure out what teacher quality is.  Is it just student test scores?  Does it include preservice education requirements beyond HQT provisions?  Are their qualitative factors?  Can we accept a “we’ll know it when we see it” definition?  With increased focus continuing to be placed on the topic of teacher quality, we need a true defition and a true measurement to really launch a meaningful discussion.  We’ve spent too much time talking about what it isn’t or what it shouldn’t be.  It is time to determine what it is.
7. Research remains king.  In 2010, we spent a great deal of money on school reforms and improvement ideas.  Most of these dollars were an investment in hope.  Now it is time to verify.  We need to determine what is working and what is not.  We need to know not just that the money is being spent (as ED typically sees evaluation) but instead need to know what it is being spent on and what is showing promise of success.  We need to redouble our investments in evaluation.  Other sectors have made real advances because of investments in R&D.  It is about time for education to do the same.
8. We need to learn how to use social media in education.  It is quite disheartening to see that states like Virginia are exploring banning teachers from using tools like Facebook with their students.  It is also a little frustrating to see that media like Twitter are still being used for one-way communications.  We need to see more engagement and dialogue through our social media.  An example?  How about more Twitter debates like those between @DianeRavitch and @MichaelPetrilli ?
And as we look forward to the new year, some predictions on what is hot and what is not for 2011.
HOT — Accountability (and its flexibility).  Assessments.  International benchmarking.  Rural education.  Alternative certification.  Special education.  Competitive grants.  Local control.  School improvement.  Local elected school boards.  Online education.
NOT —  Charter schools.  Early childhood education.  21st century skills.  STEM.  ELL.  Education schools.  RttT/i3.  Education reform (yeah, you heard me).  Teachers unions.  Mayoral control.  AYP.  Early colleges.  Edujobs.
Happy new year!  

We’re Twitter-ific!

It is the holiday season, and the gifts just keep finding their way under Eduflack’s tree.  This week, the good folks over at DistanceEducation.org unveiled their Top 20 Education Influencers You Need to Follow on Twitter in 2011 … and Why.  

It is a great list of organizations and individuals that “do an amazing job at creating tweets that focus on every aspect of education.”   And the dear ol’ @Eduflack Twitter feed is honored to be Number 16 on the Top 20 list.  (Joining notables such as Dwight “Doc” Gooden, Joe Montana, and Pat LaFontaine, among others who wore 16 proudly.)
The folks at Distance Education honored @Eduflack, noting:
“Brought to you by the author of Eduflack, a blog that focuses on improving education through effective communication, @edulfack offers its followers an amazing flow of information that keeps them on top of the latest happenings in the field of education. @Eduflack really leaves no educational stone un-turned – from science and teacher prep to education reform – he covers it all.”    

Eduflack greatly appreciates the early Christmas present, and I hope to love up to the expectations in 2011.  Looks like we can’t quit on Twitter after all … (just kidding)

Looking for Online Learning Exemplars

Without question, K-12 virtual education opportunities are gaining more and more attention as late.  Earlier this month, the Digital Learning Council — under the leadership of former governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise — released its Digital Learning Now! report.  In it, the new group offered up its 10 elements of high-quality digital education.

The 10 elements are core to learning success, whether it be digital or otherwise.  By focusing on issues such as student eligibility, student access, personalized learning, advancement, content, instruction, providers, assessment and accountability, funding, and delivery, the DLC makes clear that digital learning is central to the 21st century learning environment.  Online learning is no longer a topic left to the periphery.  It is core to modern-day instruction.
But the DLC’s outline of how begs a very important question — who?  This week, Eduflack was talking with a school district that is quite interested in expanding its digital learning offerings and take a major step forward in offering e-instruction and online offerings to its students.  Anticipating the time and expense involved in such forward progress, school officials were looking to do some site visits with other school districts in state.  The list of “success stories” was relatively short, but a few districts kept popping up.
After some exploration, though, a big problem arose.  The districts that were identified as best practice for online learning in the state were districts that failed to meet AYP this year.  Knowing that, can one look to model instructional practice from a district that can’t make adequate yearly progress?  It might not be fair, but AYP is the most important measure a school district faces today.  Any step one takes to improve or enhance instruction should result in improved student achievement.
It would be terrific if every state were a state like Florida, with a strong and successful online learning network that can be modeled and borrowed and stolen from.  But in this day and age, we first look to our own backyards to see what is done, particularly as we emphasize the need to demonstrate proficiency on state assessment exams.  So while we’d all love to replicate what the Florida Virtual School may be doing, we’re first going to look at what the neighboring county or the district with similar demographics on the other side of the state is up to.
It is no secret that K-12 education believes in modeling.  Few want to be first to market; everyone wants to do what a fellow successful state, district, school, or teacher is doing.  This is particularly true for digital learning, where so few truly understand it and so few are actually doing it well.  So how do we know who is an appropriate model?  Where is it happening in a district, a school, and with kids like mine?  And how do we determine if a district is indeed worth modeling?
Eduflack is all ears for those who want to identify examples of school districts who have been particularly successful in developing online learning programs, particularly those LEAs who can demonstrate return on their investment, both in usage and in student achievement.  Who wants in?  Where are our exemplars for district-based online learning programs?

Online Learning in the Windy City

At a time when we are asking school districts to do more and more with less and less, how do we maximize the resources and opportunities we currently have?  While many folks may see online learning in K-12 as a great idea, but one they aren’t willing to fully embrace in practice, Chicago Public Schools is showing us how online learning can be effectively used.

Over at edReformer, Eduflack has a new blog post post on how CPS is using online learning to supplement the learning process and improve high school grad rates in the process.  As I say on edReformer, if we are serious about improving all schools for all students, we need to look closely at what Chicago is doing so we can maximize an instructional component like online learning, not minimize it.

The Case for Quality Online Learning

Eduflack is back on his edReformer soapbox today, offering up the latest thinking of online K12 learning and the misperceptions surrounding it.  A decade ago, we watched colleges and universities struggle with transitioning from bricks and mortar to online.  Now, we are starting to see the same challenges in K12.  Check it out over at edReformer, as well as a wealth of other posts and streams on e-learning and online instruction.