Saturday, May 28, 2011

The inevitability of personal digital learning

Standards-based reform began in the 1990s and was accelerated and broadened by NCLB in the naughts.   The ideal of high standards, more measurement and strong accountability didn’t work as well as hoped—in many states we ended up with low expectations, cheap tests, and weak accountability.  Done right, standards-based reform is still a good frame, but it’s hard to do well and sustain.

Many standards advocates, me included, believed that new school development would prove to be transformational.  Dozens of grant-funded networks were developed over the last 15 years, most promisingly charter management organizations.  But after twenty years, 5000 charter schools only serve 3% of total enrollment.  Half of these new schools are great but development has been slow and expensive.

A wave of thin governance reforms (e.g. site-based management), poorly constructed pay schemes (e.g. merit pay), along with waves of instructional fads all failed to produce impact at scale.

In a discussion of personal digital learning, former Massachusetts commissioner Dave Driscoll suggested that this time is different—that a shift inevitable.  Driscoll was the country’s best college-ready chief, leading the implementation of some of the best state standards.  On his watch, Tom Payzant’s steady push made Boston the best urban district in American. Driscoll is on to something—the shift to personal digital learning is different than previous waves of education reform for at least six reasons:

1. The growth of informal learning opportunities. Targeted learning capabilities like Khan Academy are building on broad learning capabilities like search and Wikipedia.  For anyone connected to broadband, it’s possible to learn almost anything.

2. The growth of online learning.  Growing at 46% annually, online learning is extending access to quality content and instruction.  Growth is concentrated where states have extended access with multiple statewide providers offering full and part time enrollment.  (The future may be inevitable but progress is lumpy.)

3. RttT assessments will drive the shift to online testing (in about 44 states).  The 2014 deadline for new state tests, which will probably be predominantly online, is causing states to consider plans for high access learning environments.

4. Online learning providers are massively scalable.  For the first time, the U.S. has a half a dozen (nonprofit and for-profit) providers capable of serving millions of students with consistently high quality.

5. The ‘new normal’ environment will continue to promote productivity seeking school models.  The press to do more with less will make this decade different than the last two decades of adding edtech to how we’ve always done school.

6. The adoption of Common Core State Standards will promote investment in the development of new engaging content libraries and learning platforms.

Commentators like Andy Rotherham worries about overhyping technology.  There will be lots of versions of tech-enabled schools and, like charters, some will work better than others.  But this is not like other reforms, it’s a phase-shift not a reform, it’s a shift from print to digital and from groups to individual students.  These shifts are irreversible historic shifts not temporal reforms.

This article was originally posted at

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