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Can Colorado Reach Forefront of Student-Centered Digital Learning Policy?

A little disappointed? Yes. Surprised? Not really. I’m talking about digital learning guru Michael Horn’s new Education Next breakdown of 2013 legislative policy changes affecting the world of online education. It’s a long read, but Horn essentially identifies three different trends:

  1. More course-level choice and freedom for students;
  2. More restrictions on full-time online learning programs; and
  3. More steps toward the flexibility needed to embrace competency-based (rather than seat time) learning.

Since I’m regularly watching what goes on in Colorado’s K-12 education landscape, it didn’t surprise me terribly to see our state left out of the discussion. In the case of #2, it actually brings me relief to say so. Colorado lawmakers, to their credit, have avoided overreacting and overregulating. I’ve put online schools’ growing pains in context, even as we look at the need for more blended learning options to better serve some students’ needs.

Still, it’s Horn’s discussion of the first point that simultaneously excites and deflates me the most. Once again, all the talk of course-level choice reminds me how Colorado’s debates seem so 20th century (or older). More than a year ago, my Education Policy Center friends were harping on the need for this, but Colorado plods along. Leave it to Utah, Florida, and Louisiana to set the standard.

Perhaps the most interesting piece is the third one. A truly flexible competency-based system could be both a huge boon both to all kinds of students and a relief to the taxpayers who fund education. In addition to Utah and Florida, Horn points out that states like Vermont and even Alabama are beginning to implement ways to untie the testing, funding, and accountability knots that make it difficult to personalize learning at the pace that benefits individual students.

While some would say that just letting the innovative technology unfold will lead to powerful change, Horn concludes by making the case that important state-level policy changes are needed to accelerate progress (has his position evolved a bit?):

The only guarantee seems to be that even as K–12 digital learning—or certainly the hype around it—continues to expand, efforts to regulate and channel the new instructional models will be both frantic and uneven. Some will fight to stunt their growth, and others will seek to give them more freedom. Still others will seek to provide more access, so long as it is focused on student outcomes. If the digital transformation of higher education continues apace, it will have a major impact on secondary schooling as well. However things end up, state policies seem certain to play a major role.

The future is now. I’d sure like to see Colorado make some real strides on this front, even if the politics of 2014 challenge the task of unshackling educational freedom and opportunity.