Digital Learning Now!: Obstacles to Implementation in Kentucky

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Digital Learning Now!: Obstacles to Implementation in Kentucky is a report released by the Bluegrass Institute and authored by Richard G. Innes.

In December 2010, the Foundation for Excellence in Education released a report titled Digital Learning Now! outlining a set of proposals for increasing the use of technology-based instructional systems in classrooms around the United States. This foundation is headed by former governors Jeb Bush (Florida) and Bob Wise (West Virginia). The foundation's report provided inspiration for the Kentucky-specific report highlighted here.

Download the full Digital Learning Now!: Obstacles to Implementation in Kentucky report HERE

Executive Summary

Digital learning offers outstanding potential to enhance the educational performance and efficiency of public school programs in Kentucky and the nation. After four decades of experience with automated learning systems stretching from my days in the early 1970s as an Air Force Instructor Pilot in one of the US Air Force’s first operational pilot training learning centers to my experience with digital learning in commercial aviation, this opinion is well-informed. digitalcover2Crop.png

Strong evidence of digital learning’s power also is found today in the public school sector.

Consider a "real world” K-12 example – the Barren Academy of Virtual and Expanded Learning, Kentucky’s totally online high school program. Using a totally digital instructional delivery program, Barren Academy is successfully graduating high school students once in danger of dropping out.

While that accomplishment alone is noteworthy, Bluegrass Institute research also discovered that Barren Academy accomplishes its laudable task at much lower costs per pupil than those required to operate regular public schools. The Barren Academy performs its mission for only 37 percent of the costs required to serve students in the state’s standard high school system.

Other programs in Kentucky use digital learning to help students falling behind to catch back up and become successful graduates. Meanwhile, advanced students in our small, rural schools can take digitally presented Advanced Placement and foreign language courses that otherwise would be unavailable.

Despite growing successes, it is also clear that digital learning in Kentucky is still evolving. A number of issues remain unsolved, some of which pose specific obstacles to expanding benefits of digital learning to more of the Bluegrass State’s students. This report examines some of the more serious roadblocks, including:

  • Funding,
  • Problems with the data capacity and speed of Internet access (a ‘bandwidth’ issue),
  • Availability of credible information on which programs work best and the costs of those programs,
  • Accessibility to hardware and software and critical initial teacher training and on-going professional development to effectively employ these rapidly evolving tools, and
  • Assessment design to foster better digital learning.

Kentucky’s School-Based Decision-Making Councils (SBDM), the key decision making element in Kentucky’s education system, also create problems. SBDM laws require all decisions related to curriculum be made at the school level rather than the district or state level. Thus, most key decisions impacting digital learning are highly decentralized in Kentucky. The problem is that there are usually rather limited school-level resources to research effective digital learning programs, which can lead to inappropriate selections. The SBDM school governance system can also lead to an extreme lack of standardization in programs even within individual school districts. The lack of uniformity can seriously stress the support capabilities of district and state level technology staff. This issue is important enough – and unique enough – to Kentucky, that a separate section of this report is devoted to the problems generated by the SBDM.

It should be noted that this report draws on inputs from a number of Kentucky educators, including the Commissioner of Education, heads of various statewide professional education organizations and agencies, school district superintendents and district technology coordinators. The report also discusses teacher comments regarding digital learning issues that were collected by the Kentucky Department of Education’s recently conducted Teaching, Empowering, Learning and Leading (TELL) survey. Unfortunately, comments from one important state education organization – the Kentucky Education Association – are not included. Despite several requests, the union formally declined to provide any input.

As a closing note, our Kentucky-specific report intentionally draws from a recent national report, Digital Learning Now! The authors of that national report share our enthusiasm for digital learning and, like us, want to foster increased use of this valuable technology in K-12 schools around the nation.

Summary of Recommendations


The Kentucky Department of Education and Kentucky Board of Education, as they revise the state’s school assessment and accountability system, should consider the new issues of evaluating performance of digital learning programs. This includes separate performance measures and reporting for alternative programs such as the Barren Academy of Virtual and Expanded Learning.


State education leaders need to take the lead on establishing a clearinghouse or other similar service for the collection of lessons learned about specific digital learning programs. Such a clearinghouse need not be state operated. One of several organizations and consortia that have been established to support digital learning could provide an excellent vehicle for such an effort. Organizations mentioned by technology coordinators include the Kentucky Society for Technology in Education (KySTE) and the Kentucky chapter of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).


Kentucky should revise legislation on inter-district transfers to allow any student who is under-performing in his current district and/or in danger of dropping out to transfer to the Barren Academy of Virtual and Expanded Learning or a similar system, and for all non-local education dollars to follow that student to the other district’s digital learning program.


Educators must carefully evaluate the use of privately owned student devices in public school classrooms to insure that students of lower-income families are not placed at an unfair disadvantage. Schools must carefully consider security issues when privately owned devices are included in any public instructional setting.


The Kentucky Department of Education should determine the degree of implementation of digital learning in the state’s schools and develop ways to address any issues identified.


Although Digital Learning Now! originates from a viewpoint that digital learning systems are already well established, Kentucky’s educators need to understand that such programs actually present a lot of unanswered questions. The Kentucky Department of Education should take the lead in developing programs to answer those questions, while, at the same time, leaving specifics to independent organizations such as the Kentucky Society for Technology in Education (KySTE) or the Kentucky chapter of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).


The Kentucky Educational Professional Standards Board should develop a voluntary program to certify teachers with the additional skills required to operate in a digital media environment. Those skills would include not only mastery of technical areas such as production of video, audio and still presentations of instructional material, but also the special training to successfully operate in the digital media instructional realm, which does not offer the sort of instant student feedback that exists in a face-to-face classroom setting.


Kentucky policymakers need to address the requirements for cross-state certification of creators and support personnel for digitally based courses. Alternatives to formal certification of individuals, such as a program quality certification by an independent, national organization, should be considered. What needs to be avoided in this process is the restrictive, job-protectionist idea that only Kentucky certification will work.


Digital learning should be an integral part of the overall professional development plan in Kentucky and an essential element in the implementation of Senate Bill 1. Education managers at all levels must insure this happens.


State education leaders should incorporate results from future TELL surveys into overall plans for teacher professional development. The survey questions should be expanded in the technology area to collect more information about which specific instruction is most needed.


Education leaders should develop policies and procedures in many areas covered by item 7 in the Digital Learning Now! report, which deals with students having access to multiple high quality providers of digital learning. Kentucky’s leaders should look to states with robust digital learning programs for indications of promising policies that also could be implemented here.


Kentucky needs to insure its new assessments are of high quality and designed to provide valid and reliable information on student and teacher performance. Once the new assessments are validated, the state needs to prohibit any local restrictions in collectively bargained agreements on using student testing data as part of the evaluation tools for teachers.


Barren County Public Schools and any similar digitally based education programs should aggressively pursue all funding to which their students are entitled, including from both state and federal sources. The Kentucky Department of Education needs to establish policies insuring funding paths are available in the future as new digital learning initiatives are created.


State administrators and local school district financial officers need to confirm whether or not Barren Academy and any other similar digital learning programs are eligible for federal dollars and state dollars (other than those from SEEK funding) that should follow transfer students. A change from funding schools with the average daily attendance approach to one that funds based on student enrollment could help improve “24/7” digital learning programs like Barren County’s chances of obtaining federal and state funding while preserving appropriate fiscal controls over tax dollars.


The Kentucky Legislature and Board of Education should take action so that all alternative schools have incentives similar to Barren Academy’s. For example, students who don’t pass courses don’t produce funding for the school. Contracts written with private digital learning providers should contain similar payment rules.


Kentucky needs a “digital consumers union” to assess the “bang for the buck” performance of all its learning systems, including digital learning approaches.


Kentucky needs to revise its badly ailing MUNIS education financial accounting system to allow accurate determination of costs incurred by various educational programs, including digital programs. Changes to MUNIS should be made to enhance meaningful research into “bang for the buck” issues.


A review is needed of current security requirements in light of the challenges posed by new technologies in the digital learning world. Are current restrictions workable with new devices and technologies? Does the need for security create a market for special Internet devices for education that incorporate internal security measures – a sort of digital lock that can only be opened with custom, controlled-access hardware and/or software? Should Kentucky’s digital technology personnel explore the possibility of creating a cross-state market for such devices to reduce costs and create large markets that would induce competition from providers?


The Kentucky Legislature needs to revisit the SBDM concept and impacts of that governance model on adoption of exciting school reform options that include increased digital learning. Providing more authority for school districts to select and manage digital learning options district-wide could be one answer to this growing problem.

Download the full report HERE

See Also

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