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.

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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.

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

1

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.

2

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).

3

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.