Bush legacy propels Florida’s digital learning leadership
(Fla.) Florida may not spring to mind as an incubator of cutting edge technology, but the next generation of the nation’s most digitally-savvy denizens may in fact hail from the Sunshine State thanks to recently-adopted legislation that puts the state among the frontrunners of virtual learning.
As of 2013-14, Florida school districts will be required to spend at least half their annual funding for instructional materials on digital curricula for the classroom. Even more groundbreaking is a new law that requires every student, beginning with the class of 2016, to take at least one online course in order to graduate from high school.
“Comparatively, when you look at the rest of the states, Florida probably has the most robust online learning portfolio for students out of any state,” said John Bailey, executive director of Digital Learning Now!, a national advocacy group founded by two former governors – Jeb Bush of Florida and Bob Wise of West Virginia.
Largely as the result of Bush, Florida in 2008 became the first state to require every school district to provide both full- and part-time online education programs to all K-12 students. Districts fulfill this requirement with a combination of private- and state-provided online offerings, and many also develop their own online classes locally as part of their state-mandated Virtual Instruction Programs.
All online classes for K-12 students in the state – whether developed by school districts, charter schools or private providers – must be aligned to Florida’s state academic standards. Courses covering the same content bear the same course number, according to Mary Jane Tappen, vice chancellor of K-12 standards and instructional support at the Florida Department of Education. She also noted that students in both virtual and traditional settings take the state’s standardized assessments annually.
“Content that is taught and the content that is tested is the same across the state,” Tappen said.
According to Tappen, the multitude of choices offered to Florida students means that they can find the best educational fit for them.
“Online programs open up students’ schedules to better meet their needs,” she said. “Students that are not successful in a content area can continue their normal brick and mortar schedules, but take courses online in areas where they need more support. There are all kinds of advantages to having both kinds of instruction available.”
According to a report by the Colorado-based Evergreen Education Group, which tracks the progress of digital education in the U.S., approximately 240,000 K-12 students in Florida enrolled in online courses in 2012-13. The trend appears to be growing, with the number of students enrolled in virtual education full time increasing by 56 percent to 7,800 students between 2011-12 and 2012-13.
Florida is home to the nation’s first and largest all-online public school, Florida Virtual School, which now offers more than 120 courses and allows public, private, charter and homeschool students in any grade to complete classes online on either a full- or part-time basis.
Because it’s a public school, in-state students pay nothing to take classes through Florida Virtual School. FLVS Global allows students outside the state’s boundaries to take the same classes for a fee.
Florida has been relentless in its push to expand digital instruction, despite criticism from some circles. University of Colorado researchers last year published a report questioning the expansion of online coursework, noting a dearth of well-regarded research supporting its effectiveness.
Both teachers unions and parent groups have raised concerns that the spread of digital learning encourages the privatization of public education by allowing for-profit companies to compete for education dollars.
Those concerns were heightened last year when Florida’s inspector general found that K12 Inc., a for-profit company and the nation’s largest provider of online education, had employed several teachers who lacked the proper Florida credentials for the online courses they were teaching.
Supporters of online education, however, say digital learning opens the door to better ways of funding schools and holding them accountable for results.
While traditional school districts generally receive operating funds based on student attendance, Florida Virtual School receives a percentage of its funding based on the number of enrolled students, and earns the remainder when students successfully complete a course.
“There’s essentially additional accountability given in the way that students are funded there that we don’t have in traditional schools,” said Bailey of Digital Learning Now!
This could be expanded, he said, to a funding mechanism that pays online course providers for performance. For example, higher funding levels could be set when students reach certain proficiency benchmarks or demonstrate measurable academic growth.
“There’s a lot of room there to use the payment system to incent and reward high-quality online course provision,” he said.
Adopting more competency-based learning models is another area where Bailey thinks Florida could break new ground in digital learning. Traditional classrooms use seat-time to measure course completion. Once students have spent two, 18-week semesters in Algebra I and earned a passing grade, for example, they are deemed ready to move on to a more advanced-level math class.
Under a competency-based model, students move at their own pace, mastering material and moving on to the next course when they are ready, whether they master content quickly or need additional time. Computer-based courses that allow access to material on-demand make competency-based education possible on a larger scale than in the past.
For now, Florida is striving to bring even greater connectivity to its students.
“We continue to try to push forward,” Tappen said of the state’s attempts to stay at the forefront of digital education, “while at the same time supporting those areas of the state that need continued infrastructure, devices, and all the technology that is necessary to make this work."