Not very long ago, if I wanted to own a hit song, I had to truck on down to the record store and buy an entire album. Maybe two or three albums because maybe I wanted “Hungry Heart” and “Thunder Road” and “Glory Days.” Now, we have online music services, like iTunes, Amazon and Rhapsody. When I download a song it can go anywhere I want: my home, my car, my portable player, my alarm clock, my phone, The Egyptian Theatre, Yankee Stadium – it doesn’t matter. I can play any grouping of any music I want, anywhere, anytime, on any platform.
It’s still music, but technology has transformed how we experience it and how we interact with it. This revolution is not confined to music: many of us used to get all our news from the morning newspaper. Now, we go online for the news we want in the format we want. Many of us download TV shows and movies and watch what we want when we want.
This same transformation is happening in K-12 education, and all across the country students are taking advantage of technology to improve how they learn. Idaho, on the other hand, has kept to its record store education delivery system.
Critics who defend the status quo treat online learning as if it is cheap parlor trick or passing fad. Yet researchers and policymakers have put a great deal of thought and attention into the creation of successful online education curricula. Former governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise have developed “The 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning.” The elements can be divided into three parts: Students (items 1-4) Schooling (items 5-7) and System (items 8-10.)
Here’s what they could mean for Idaho:
1. Student Eligibility: All students are digital learners. A student who is entitled to a public school education is entitled to high quality digital coursework. Yes, kindergarteners too – obviously with much more in-person teacher attention than may be necessary for older students. The funding formula should not be a barrier, which means Idaho needs fractional funding that can flow to any high quality provider of digital content for any class for any student.
2. Student Access: All students have access to high quality digital content and online courses. Get rid of artificial barriers to access like prescribed student-teacher ratios or prohibiting a student from taking an out-of-district course or a course offered by a certain provider.
3. Personalized Learning: All students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider. Students should be able to use online learning full-time, part-time, or for individual courses. They should be able to enroll in any course offered by any approved provider; if a Kaplan language course and a K12 mathematics course suits them best, then so be it. Students should be able to earn any number of credits online and the state should not create barriers for the providers who want to offer content in any area. Students should be able to enroll any time of the year for credit.
4. Advancement: Students progress based on demonstrated competency. No seat time-based funding. No enrollment by birthday. No social promotion. No artificial holding back due to age. Design high-stakes assessments for students who are ready to pass out of one level to the next and give them when the student is academically ready, not at any other time.
5. Content: Digital content, instructional materials, and online and blended learning are high quality. Customized content must meet state standards with an excellent teacher providing personalized instruction.
6. Instruction: Digital instruction and teachers are high quality. Digital learning will get more great teachers in front of more Idaho students no matter where in the world the teacher is located. An instructor certified to teach online in one state should be certified to teach online in Idaho. Colleges of education must offer digital instruction training. A teacher who aspires to teach in a classroom, in a hybrid setting, or completely online must demonstrate competence in that platform before being allowed to teach there. There should be no artificial barriers to becoming a teacher.
7. Providers: All students have access to multiple high quality providers. The state must have an efficient, transparent online provider approval process for public, private and non-profit providers. Information for students and families about coursework, content, teachers, and platform should be transparent and include a user ratings system.
8. Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the quality of content and instruction. Administer tests digitally for instant feedback about whether students understand learning objectives.
9. Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options and innovation. Pay providers in installments, creating incentives for completion and achievement. Do not fund any entity according to attendance regardless of what is learned or achieved.
10. Delivery: Infrastructure supports digital learning. Replace textbooks with interactive, adaptive digital content deliverable on any platform. Idaho is well on the way to high speed broadband Internet access in every community which means more students and teachers will be able to use many different devices to do school. Someday soon, there will indeed be “an app for that.” Only give away laptops based on financial need. Longitudinal student data collected by the state means portability of student information from community to community.
Idaho’s policymakers should ask themselves: five years from now, will technology take a larger place in our lives or smaller? Will there be more music downloads or more record stores?
Digital technology is the future, and it is revolutionizing everything including the way we educate our children. Now is the time to recognize what's happening and to shape the policies that put Idaho on the cutting edge of education reform.