Online is an Opportunity for Innovation

**Disclaimer:  This is not an endorsement, critique, or debate over Tom Luna’s Students Come First legislation.  Rather, my goal as a teacher and researcher directly involved in K-12 online education is to share my personal reaction to the legislation and resulting community outcry.

Over the last several weeks, Idaho has experienced a tumultuous journey in its efforts to reinvent the K-12 public educational system.  As of last evening, Idaho State Superintendent Tom Luna had two bills pass the Senate and move on to the House.  I anticipate the third will soon follow.

Mr. Luna’s plan is built on the Digital Learning Now! campaign, launched by Governor Bush in Florida.  In reviewing the campaign, I support the overall intentions and rationale behind the platform (though not all components of Mr. Luna’s plan).  It’s quite unfortunate, however, that the implementation of campaign principles in Idaho legislation was coupled with simultaneous massive teacher layoffs, and thus, much of the public framed online education (a computer) as a replacement for a teacher.

Our educational system is in a crisis, it has to change in dramatic ways, and as a society, we all have to wake up.  I think in terms larger than reform, the entire system needs innovation by people who are willing to take risks and do things outside the normal way of doing business.  When I take this stance with academics, I’m often pushed on what empirical evidence I have that shows online education “works” to justify such a change.  This is an interesting question for at least three reasons:

1.  Online education is many different things, what exact type of online education are we discussing?  Highly interactive and blended learning that involves rich media and mobile learning options, both synchronous and asynchronous communication with kids assuming roles as independent producers and creators of their own knowledge; televised lecture where students sit passively and take notes while the teacher is the main individual allowed to talk and make meaning; or an online course that is fully text-based with lots of pdf files that are downloaded, read, and then the student is quizzed? The spectrum of online learning options is huge, and there is a lot we do know about these different options and their outcomes for learners.  It’s unfortunate that we get into black and white discussions about “online education” working or not working.  A more informed stance would be to inquire and understand what learning modalities and tools are appropriate and available for a given context and the educational needs within that context.

2.  There is a research base, which you can read more about here and here, however, many skeptics like to question the validity and reliability of the research, both from a scientific and political perspective (nothing new here, post-positivists, post-modernists, and politicos have duked it out for years).  I do acknowledge the research base in K-12 online is still developing as the field continues to develop, and as new research methods and technologies emerge.  However, it doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about K-12 online learning.  If we don’t engage in methodologies such as design-based research and the use of data mining strategies, where we simultaneously research as we design and then re-design, then we wait around for years for scientific results to continue to make their way to the public and policy stage.  And at that point, guess what?  We have a whole new set of technologies on our hands that have shifted our culture yet again that need researching.  Who’s not sitting around waiting?  All those other countries that are out-producing and out-educating Americans, as well as a few savvy online schools such as Connections Academy or Florida Virtual School that are serving hundreds of thousands of kids around the world.  When pundits argue we must wait to change schools until we have more scientifically randomized controlled studies, I keep wondering how we ended up with our current educational system given all the existing educational research on educational effectiveness, and what makes them think waiting for more of the same will change anything?

3. Why are people fighting to keep a system that is so terribly broken? Over 30% of kids in America never receive a high school diploma, over 7,000 kids drop out of school every day, and over $1 billion dollars per year is spent on college remediation.  This has been going on for many years.  Folks, that is not ok.  That is a crisis and we can’t ignore it by fighting to keep things the way they have always been, or shuffling around minor pieces.   The system needs a major rethink for a digital age where we know no geographic boundaries, and where technologies evolve at a dizzying pace.

Innovation can provide us opportunity to address challenges in new ways.  For example, through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, 100% of kids in Idaho have access to hundreds of online courses as part of their learning day.  This option never existed before the creation of IDLA. Whether students live in a large district, or in a remote rural area, any Idaho child can take AP Biology courses, dual credit college courses, or learn Mandarin Chinese, if they so choose.  That innovation has solved a real problem of access for many kids in smaller districts and rural areas that didn’t have the resources to provide such specialized courses (I hear the voices now, the “my friend’s son took a fill-in-the-blank course online and said it was horrible, they never talked to the teacher, and just filled out worksheets.”)  Yes, people do have bad experiences online, just like they do in live classrooms—just ask those 30% who never graduated from high school.  The development of standards and major accountability layers over the past several years has shifted online education from a fly-by-night operation into a full-fledged standardized and accountable system that often has better data about student learning than regular schools, because online learning behaviors, activities, and outcomes can be tracked and analyzed using data and text mining techniques that provide visual data and feedback in real time.

For those of us who work in K-12 online education, we are aware that online education, in most cases, is much more than a child sitting in front of a computer that spews out robotic curriculum and multiple choice quizzes.  From our interactions with many tens of thousands of kids and teachers, we reportedly hear first-hand that K-12 students in online or blended courses can have life-changing experiences, feel empowered, re-energized in their learning, and learn to become accountable for their own lives and career path as they head toward college. Those narratives also serve as an important form of data as we triangulate our findings.  Online education options can help students develop independent learning behaviors in a way that a forced day/time/curricular experience never can.  Online learning continues to grow at heady rates, so one has to question why….only several states have requirements for online learning options, and most of those have been enacted recently.  Yet over 2,000,000 kids do choose online courses.  And the blended education movement (part online, part live classroom) has taken major hold across the country.

I would like to see our state become a national leader in innovative learning by exploring options for keeping educational revenue in the state, or better yet, bringing revenue into the state from other states for our innovative learning offerings.  In full disclosure, I want to acknowledge that our department has had contracts with online providers, including IDLA, Connections Academy, and others, providing them online teacher training or evaluation services.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Online and blended curriculum is king.  Everyone around the globe needs it.  Why not pass legislation that allows IDLA, or any other innovative educational program, to package its curriculum and re-license it to other schools around the world?  In other words, start acting like a funded enterprise and less like a welfare program reliant on state dollars.  This could generate millions of dollars in a very short time period.  And we could rehire many of those teachers who were laid off to serve in new roles as blended learning or online course designers, teacher trainers, course facilitators, learning coaches, just-in-time tutors, and other emerging roles in education.
  • Create legislation that allows schools in Idaho to provide online professional development to teachers around the globe, for a fee.  Work with the universities to provide continuing education credits.  Once these programs are developed, they can also be re-licensed to other organizations that want to buy professional development programs.
  • Provide more technology innovation funding opportunities to local partnerships between schools, business and universities to research and develop state-of-the art learning technologies that can be used in our own schools, and again, licensed to other schools outside the state.

In other words, let’s stop being passive consumers who spend state dollars on education, and instead let’s invest in training our own people to become innovators and leaders who develop the next wave of education, and then make smart business decisions with business leaders who can make that education available to others.  While some might argue this utopian vision isn’t possible or desirable, I can let you know we live it on a daily basis in our self-support graduation program in educational technology.  We haven’t relied on state appropriations for over six years, we pay our own bills, and hire many people both in and outside of Idaho who would never have jobs otherwise.  It’s fun (and sometimes frustrating) to be at the cutting-edge of our field, but this very nature of our positioning is what creates our greatest success.  And we have more effectiveness data than any other department in our college, including e-portfolios showing learning performance outcomes aligned to national standards, video reflections on students’ personal and professional growth, course/graduate/alumni survey data, learner behavior outcomes tracked inside our learning management system, graduation and retention rates, learner satisfaction data, and more.  Innovation involves strategic risk and acceptance of the potential for failure.  We don’t get it right 100% of the time.  But we do build in cycles of R&D to understand why something didn’t work, so we can modify it and try again.

While innovation can seem very exciting to those involved directly in its development, outsiders to the innovation can often feel threatened to the point of becoming hostile.  In our work to innovate education, in our state and around the globe, my goal is to work together with all involved and interested parties, including teachers, parents, children, policymakers, organizations, and state and private schools (online or not), to understand multiple viewpoints that can help inform and influence the development of the educational innovation effort as it moves along.  From my perspective, it does involve “online” or “blended” education in a myriad of forms that should be contextualized to whatever local needs and resources might exist.  I look forward to the challenge, and invite you to join me.

14 thoughts on “Online is an Opportunity for Innovation

  1. Patricia St. Tourangeau February 25, 2011 / 4:53 PM

    I am ALL about technology & innovation! Of course, the problems with Luna’s plan are multitude. No buy-in by stakeholders, an attempt to make the IEA a group of villainous thugs for refusing any “reform” efforts, the replacement of teachers with laptops. I know, I know: online education CAN be good, but when it is framed as Luna’s plan — dismiss 1000 education workers (teachers, classified, administrative) in order to buy laptop computers, then mandate online education — then the plan is sure to be detested by many. I believe that good education is always a blend, and like you I have years of experience. But in this article, while you frame your discussion with the disclaimer that you are not endorsing the plan, in fact you endorse large elements of it & describe the current educational system as “broken.” I don’t believe it is broken; I think it needs to be revved up for the 21st century, but rarely if ever do viable changes come about without stakeholder input — let alone the buy-in of the thousands of educators charged with implementing the plan. Mr. Luna’s errors are many and egregious, and we will pay the price in the years to come.

    • lisadawley February 25, 2011 / 5:02 PM

      Thank you for your comments, Patricia. When I understand that 30% of kids never graduate, I have to say it isn’t working in its current form for millions of people. I’m sorry if my choice of words offended you in any way. I greatly admire and appreciate teachers. They are my heroes, and the driving force behind my work.

      I agree with you that involved players must be active contributors and consultants to major policy changes. We have also worked very hard for years to keep communications open with the State Dept. of Education to the benefit of kids and teachers, sometimes we are more successful than others. It’s extremely unfortunate Mr. Luna didn’t outreach to more involved parties. I was not sought out for advice on his legislation, was unaware of it until it recently came to the attention of the general public, and was not a contributor to his campaign.

  2. Westley Field February 25, 2011 / 7:09 PM

    Hi Lisa,

    I strongly agree with your sentiment here. In Australia, we look at the work from you University in Boise Idaho as leading the way in the transformation of educational practice.

    Online and blended learning ‘exposes’ teaching practice which, in turn, leads to improved learning outcomes for students. By writing down what it is that they want to teach teachers expose their teaching to themselves and can therefor examine their method and improve upon it, they also expose it to peers and colleagues who can also provide feedback, finally parents, community members and students can also provide feedback and contribute to the development of the learning experience. Having it then archived online allows the content to be revisited time and again to be modified and improved.

    Students who are having an off day won’t miss content as they revisit what they may not have heard the teacher say. New media integrated into the learning engages students and, if designed effectively, online units can allow a myriad of social learning opportunities beyond the walls of the traditional classroom. This last aspect also opens up obvious opportunities to those who may miss valuable educational experiences due to time, health or location constraints.

    All in all online learning creates an equitable, affordable, motivational experience for learners and teachers alike. Boise is at the forefront of this impressive movement and any move that places that work in jeopardy would be insane.

    Thanks again for all the work you have done motivating us over here. Our teachers and students are benefiting more and more each day both in their practice and in their results. Keep up the good fight.

    • lisadawley February 28, 2011 / 10:09 PM

      Hi Westley,

      Your comments about online education exposing teaching practice, for the benefit of kids, parents, and teachers, were extremely useful for me. Thanks for insight from the inside!


  3. Tom Layton February 28, 2011 / 7:56 AM

    Excellent article.

    To me, the problem has been the same. Online learning is best when it breaks the chains of geography. A student living in Portland should discuss World War II, with their virtual classmates in Nagasaki, Berlin, Moscow and Australia. However, American schools are governed (and funded) locally. To my knowledge, only in the US must a teacher be certified in 50 different states to teach students from all over the country. It is difficult to fill an online Algebra class when students cannot sign up because they live in a different school district a few miles away. Geographically governed educational districts simply “do not work and play well with others.” “Keeping educational revenue in the state” and “bringing revenue into the state from other states” will not work unless it is the customer (the student and his/her parents) who decides if the Algebra class from Idaho is better suited than the one from Oregon. Until we solve the geography/funding problem, we will not make much progress.

    • lisadawley February 28, 2011 / 9:15 AM

      Tom, thanks for your comments. I think we’re on the same page. I also support parent and student choice, and students taking coursework with a school of their own choosing, in Idaho or otherwise. My point was that our state isn’t yet examining the opportunity to become innovators of learning by creating legislation that provides for the potential for commercialization with innovative work that is already happening in our own state. We have accomplished a lot that could benefit many other people.

      Many of the virtual schools hire across state boundaries, so that is starting to become less of an issue. I do support national certification for teachers. You can get more in-depth detail in a summit report where I helped co-author the section on national policy recommendations: Redefining Teacher Education for Digital Age Learners.

  4. Linda Paul March 1, 2011 / 7:38 AM

    Lisa, thanks for trying to demystify the art of teaching in a new and evolving paradigm. My experiences with online learning have been stricty through BSU. I enrolled in as many online courses as I could and only had one bad experience. The bad experience had nothing to do with the online aspect of learning. It had everything to do with an old, entrenched professor who had no clue and no interest in learning how to use the tools available to him.

    As much as I loved my online learning experience, I share other readers’ concerns about how Luna has gone about his plan. A shift in direction of this magnitude should involve all the stakeholders and should inform everyone__ stakeholders & taxpayers__about the costs analyses, benefits, potential pitfalls, and reasons for the change. Luna, is all about ramming his plan through at all costs. BAD idea for everyone.

    I’ll be sharing this article, hoping that others may also see that not everything about Luna’s Lunacies is negative….despite the fact that it smacks of under-the-table deals and power plays.

    • lisadawley March 1, 2011 / 1:40 PM

      Linda, thanks for posting. I also share your concern.

  5. Dr. Michael Blankenship March 1, 2011 / 8:36 AM

    You paint a picture of the possible. But your vision is far removed from the reality of Idaho and its K-12 system. You fail, for example, to mention the campaign contributions from individuals and companies that would benefit from lucrative contracts. You make no mention of the greatest threat to the K-12 system – the removal of tenure and the loss of academic freedom. And you fail to place this effort by Republicans in the context of a wide-spread attack on the working class while ignoring the people who are responsible for the near collapse of our economy yet who continue to benefit from tax cuts and other handouts that drive up budget deficits.

    The bills now before the legislature have nothing to do with improving the learning environment, but everything to do with power and politics. And therein lies the problem.

    • lisadawley March 1, 2011 / 1:37 PM

      Michael, thank you for your comments. It is my intent to paint a picture of possible solutions that involve further innovation in our own state, with our own educators, as well as describe what is currently happening that are examples of existing innovation that could be better leveraged. What you may see as far removed, I live on a daily basis with all the virtual and non-virtual educators I work with in Idaho and across the country. I’m not defending Luna, Luna’s legislation, or the way he brought about the legislation without involving stakeholders. To the contrary, I’ve been discouraged by our inability to become engaged with his legislation and initiatives such as the IEN, as we are the only state board approved program offering graduate degrees in educational technology, school tech coordination, online teaching, and tech integration specialists, the very individuals who would be involved in using such a system in our state.

      My goal is to support more open dialogue around solutions, and less polarization around political camps. My hope is that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water because we are angry about Tom Luna, how he does his job, or what people feel he represents politically. To frame the entirety of online education as right wing is to do a great disservice to a field involving millions of individuals in the U.S. from all political parties.

      Legislation has always involved power and politics. Of course companies make money in education, a corollary example in non-digital education would be textbook corporations who have influenced adoptions, politics, and spending for years. As I disclosed, our department has had contracts servicing some of these distance education providers. And as a self-support program, we have been able to hire many employees, provide scholarships, and create graduate assistantships that didn’t exist before because of this financial relationship. Our research-based practices thus help influence and frame the system. I do support entrepreneurial approaches to education for these reasons.

  6. Marla Dunn March 1, 2011 / 9:24 AM

    Dear Lisa,
    I totally agree with you! Thank you so much for shedding light on our broken educational system. I am currently a teacher with an online school and am encouraged and inspired each day by the things my students are doing. We have got to be innovative to move forward. Change has to happen and it needs to happen soon.

    Thank you for your well written article.

    • lisadawley March 1, 2011 / 1:41 PM

      Marla, thanks for posting. It’s great to hear from an online teacher!

  7. Grace Hall March 1, 2011 / 2:35 PM

    I read with great interest your blog entry. I agree that we need to continue innovating online education.
    I wanted to share with you the recent K-12 initiative advanced by the Quality Matters (QM) Program. In collaboration with Florida Virtual School, QM designed a Grades 6-12 Rubric that staff, faculty and administration can use to ensure the quality of online courses offered through states, districts or individual schools.
    Quality Matters (QM) is a teacher-administrator centered, peer review process that is designed to certify the quality of online and blended courses. Based on research-supported and published best practices, the G6-12 Rubric has been created to address the need for a set of standards that is specific enough to guide the development, enhancement, and evaluation of online and blended courses for middle and high school students.
    The Grades 6-12 Rubric features the integration of accepted standards from school boards, state organizations and consortiums throughout the nation. The rubric and training opportunities can be used for professional development, curriculum development, quality assurance for current courses and evaluation of instructional design practices.
    Potential users of the G6-12 rubric are teachers, teacher education programs, instructional designers, design teams and administrators.
    Thanks again for your great article.

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