Struggling with #digitallearning rather than #onlinelearning and #blendedlearning in 2014 Keeping Pace Report

I have to admit that I am a strong believer in the power of online learning for K-12 students. I have read the research, contributed a bit to the research, and experienced the power of online learning first-hand as an online charter high school principal. When the term blended learning came upon the landscape, I was worried it would water down what true and effective online learning was. However, I have come to realize that to have effective blended learning teaching, that there had to be effective online learning tools and programs first. I also know that as a researcher it is important to have clear definitions in order to study teaching and learning, as well as teach others what it means.

I am struggling with the latest Keeping Pace Report, now titled “Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning” rather than “Keeping Pace with K-12 Online and Blended Learning” or “Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning,” because of the term digital learning. In the executive summary of the report, the authors explain the reasons for the shift to the term digital learning. But I am concerned that this term waters down what effective blended and online learning really is. I was part of a one-to-one laptop program in a school district and middle school over 15 years ago. By the definitions in the current Keeping Pace report, this district and school – as well as many others – were doing digital learning long ago. It seems that this shift in terms is suggesting that whenever a teacher uses a website or posts a lesson online or use a cell phone for polling or assigns a YouTube video for homework that they are doing digital learning. But, it seems like in those early days, most teachers were simply substituting digital tools for print tools and the teaching did not change.

The conclusion in the opening of the report states:

  • “At a very high level we believe the following two points, which may appear contradictory at first glance, describe the current state of digital learning in K–12 education:
  • 1. More students have access to more types of digital learning than ever before. Digital learning options are available to many students in a rapidly expanding range of forms, including online courses from multiple sources, dedicated schools built around aggressive digital instruction models, and many digital learning opportunities in traditional school settings.
  • 2. Wide gaps remain in the availability of digital learning. There are still vast differences among schools in the availability of technology, data communications capabilities, and digital content and tools. In addition, limitations placed on schools and students vary by local and state policies, and in decisions made by districts….
  • We are continuing to expand our research and reporting in new and exciting directions, and we are committed to reporting on access, activity, and—to the extent possible—outcomes.”

No doubt that access, activity and outcomes are important. But how is that any different than what is measured in traditional education? Measuring policy and activity is a challenge … and then even when policies have been passed, how they are implemented to improve learning is another matter.

For now, I’m holding onto what I know has made a difference in student learning from the fields of online and blended learning, including the Christensen Institute definition of blended learning. The field continues to grow and change … and I wonder how long we will remain in the “nascent” stages of blended and online and digital learning or if we will be in a perpetual nascent stage?

Perhaps the term digital learning will cause more schools and teachers to better understand the importance of providing options for students that better engage learning, no matter what the term is called.

Overall, I do believe there needs to be a continued shift in education to a more blended learning environment that leads to more engaged learners, greater student achievement and more career and college-ready students. I think these attributes best describe the shift that should occur – no matter what term is used:

  • Shift in teaching pedagogy that is more student centric and collaborative with colleagues and students
  • Data driven instruction and assessments that leads to more personalized learning
  • Empowered learning that is iterative and innovative that better engages teachers and students
  • Use of gaming to engage learners
  • Learning that can occur anytime, anywhere and from any device
  • Increased access for all students to learning in many formats (print, video, audio, simulations, games, etc.)
  • Daily use of digital curriculum, resources and systems that provide real time data for students, teachers and parents so students understand their progress towards mastering key concepts
  • Curricular and instructional goals should drive the technology

Do read the report to learn about the changing landscape of blended, online and digital learning to become more informed about the changing field of education in America and join in the conversation. The end result is what we all desire: more students graduating from high school who are engaged in learning and are career and/or college ready that lead to productive and happy lives. 


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