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Budgeting smartly for digital success

Paul Teske is dean and University of Colorado Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. (These views represent the personal opinions of the author and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system).

For decades, some education pundits have predicted that technology would radically alter and improve the delivery of educational services. Radio, Ed TV, and computers in classrooms were all examples that were highly touted in their time. And, while none of these has really had much impact on student learning, a cottage industry has also developed within academia to explain why – no changes to teaching approaches, use of a mass media, poor content, lack of training, etc.

(I should note that I’m old enough to remember film-strips as a major technology. In the exurban NYC town in which I grew up, teachers sometimes engaged in strikes, despite a state law against it, and we students would come to school anyway, to get enough days in to fully meet state regulations for funding. We would wave to our striking teachers and head into class rooms to watch educational film strips, in the absence of real instructors).

Now, with widespread digital access and technologies, we may well be on the cusp of a technological change in education that will be meaningful. Many smart people believe this. In part this is because content has improved and Internet applications allow for ways for teachers to achieve real student differentiation and narrow-casting, not mass media approaches and broad-casting.

A bunch of recent books and articles argue that this will transform education. The most interesting of these include Disrupting Class (2008) by Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn, and Liberating Learning (2009) by Terry Moe and John Chubb.

You don’t have to go to too many education events or hot lunches to hear about interesting technological applications, whether in Denver like DSST, or around the nation, with examples like School of One, Rocketship, and Carpe Diem.

As we engage in considerable online learning in higher education (and my own school was quite early to these efforts and we do a great deal of it), there are still reasons to have concerns about quality and other issues. Recent examinations of K-12 online learning in Colorado have shown some real problems and there are some disappointing models as well. Clearly, we need new ways to assess and think about online learning.

Hoping to inform this discussion, the Fordham Institute, led by Checker Finn, has recently released three reports on digital learning collectively called “Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning.” The three reports include one on quality control by Rick Hess, one on teachers by Bryan Hassell, and a new one on budgeting by Paul Hill (disclosure: my friend and a colleague at CRPE).

Hill’s report is called “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era.”

Hill addresses the barriers that today’s school finance regulations create for flexible, digital learning. He then suggests the elements of a financial system that would need to be in place for a state to properly encourage online learning – funding education not students, money that moves with students, paying for unconventional forms of education, and withholding funding for unsuccessful program without chilling innovation.

The most interesting idea is an “educational backpack” that has flexible funding that moves around with the student. This might allow the per pupil funding to be divided – with some of it going to the main educational institution of choice, but other parts of it being used for supplemental services or tutoring, for language courses through Rosetta Stone or similar provider, and other alternatives. In some ways, this could take choice a step further, to the program level.

As always, Hill is wise, insightful, and also thoughtful about the full implications of what he proposes. Indeed, I am very glad he has a full section on oversight. While entrepreneurial efforts are important, they should not get a free pass just because they fall into the innovation category. The recent history of poorly regulated private, for-profit online higher education shows that without proper oversight a lot of bad education, financial waste, and/or fraud can and will happen.

So, perhaps we are now on the cusp of a real revolution in education, via online, digital platforms. It remains to be seen whether this will be more revolutionary, or more disruptive, than Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press that made books affordable to the masses. While the technological edutopia perspective is understandable, it surely won’t materialize without smart policies in place.

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