Digital Learning Task Force: Where Are We Two Years Later?

December 16, 2015

By Dan Forsberg

Digital Learning Task Force Overview

In 2012, Governor Nathan Deal formed the Digital Learning Task Force (DLTF) by executive order to develop a comprehensive strategy to improve student achievement through digital learning in Georgia’s K-12 schools.  The task force released its final report on December 17, 2013 with twelve recommendations, divided into the following three areas:[1]

  • Infrastructure
  • Digital Content and Courses
  • Blended and Competency-Based Learning

These recommendations provided a cohesive strategy to improve student achievement through digital learning across the state. This education update summarizes the progress on these recommendations since the report’s release two years ago.[2]

Infrastructure                                           

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA), the University System of Georgia (USG), the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE), and the OneGeorgia Authority collaborated to address the infrastructure needs outlined in the DLTF’s final report.

Recommendation 1: Increase statewide broadband capacity to schools, ensuring that Georgia’s schools are able to utilize 21st century technology in classrooms.

Under this recommendation, the DLTF set a goal to increase each school district’s bandwidth, equivalent to 100 Mbps per school, through the expansion of the University System of Georgia’s PeachNet within two years. As of July 1, 2015, this goal was achieved. Each district central office is now connected to the PeachNet backbone to create a K-12 network. Districts are able to purchase additional bandwidth through the network, and the groundwork is laid to meet future bandwidth needs.

Recommendation 2: Increase districts’ ability to expand wireless connectivity and device availability within schools, allowing them to fully leverage increased broadband capacity.

With this added connectivity from the K-12 Network, districts needed more robust network infrastructure to ensure this increased connectivity reached schools and classrooms. To address this need, Governor Deal proposed and the General Assembly approved budgets over the last two years that included nearly $70 million to provide grants to districts and state charter schools through the Connections for Classrooms Grant Program, a partnership between the GaDOE, GOSA, and the OneGeorgia Authority.

The grant rounds have prioritized funding applicants that have strong alignment with the task force’s recommendations, particularly the districts’ plans to leverage digital and blended learning to improve student achievement and prepare their teachers for this transition.

More than $62 million in awards have been made over the first two rounds to 143 districts and state charter schools. These awards have enabled districts to earn an additional $90 million in federal E-rate funds for network infrastructure. Round 3 will award approximately $8.5 million in January 2016.

District Snapshot
 
As a result of Connections for Classrooms and the K-12 Network expansion, Tift County Schools has expanded to 10 Gbps fiber connectivity within their Wide Area Network to each school's core switch and server.  This increase in internal WAN bandwidth creates an environment where digital learning is not impeded by network overutilization. As result of this increased capacity, students are able to enroll in blended courses to accelerate their learning. For example, 8th grade students earned more than 400 high school credits last year, more than five times as many as the prior year.

Digital Content and Courses

Regarding digital content and courses, the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) has made efforts to address the following three components of the DLTF final report:

Recommendation 4: Support the transition to and acquisition of digital resources at the state, system, school and classroom level.

Recommendation 5: Remove barriers to online learning.

Recommendation 6: Develop a broad-based communication strategy around the importance and effective use of digital learning.

Many of GaDOE’s pre-existing programs and efforts to provide digital learning resources have expanded since the release of the DLTF’s digital learning recommendations. The Georgia Virtual School (GaVS) continues to expand its enrollment and academic resources for middle and high school courses.  In 2014-2015, GaVS had a course enrollment of 52,290, up from 25,887 in 2012-2013.[3]  GaVS has also increased the number of available resources.  Through the GaVS’ Shared Resources, 112 courses in over 40 subjects are freely accessible to students, parents, and educators.  These courses are divided into modules where students and teachers can access handouts, practice questions, reviews, and other learning tools. In addition, GaVS offers AP courses and credit recovery courses to allow students to retake courses.

GaDOE also offers many free digital resources for students, teachers, and parents through the Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) as well as online and in-person training and resources through the Teacher Resource Link (TRL).  The SLDS also provides a system for assessing student progress through the Georgia Online Formative Assessment Resource (GOFAR), a tool for teachers and administrators to develop formative and summative assessments.

The GaDOE is currently undergoing efforts to offer a digital student “tool-kit” called the Student Backpack. This tool-kit will provide Georgia K-12 students with presentation tools, collaboration spaces, and online portfolio management tools.

Blended and Competency-Based Learning

To implement blended and competency-based learning, the DLTF recommended the utilization of the Innovation Fund, a competitive grant program that provides funding for innovative education programs to districts and schools partnering with postsecondary institutions and nonprofit organizations. The Innovation Fund addresses the following recommendations from the DLTF’s Final Report:

Recommendation 7: Provide blended and competency-based learning opportunities, so that PK-12 and postsecondary students are able to broaden, accelerate, or otherwise pace their learning appropriately and ensure mastery before progressing.

Recommendation 11: Find ways to incentivize the blended learning and competency-based courses, programs, and opportunities that expand and extend learning opportunities for students. Use the Innovation Fund, housed at the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA), to support pilots and identify scalable models.

Defining Blended Learning
 
Blended Learning combines online and in-school learning, through three key components:
  • Online learning, in which students have control over “time, place, path, and/or pace,”
  • On-site learning at a supervised brick-and-mortar location, and
  • Subject-area content connected between online and in-school learning.[4]
Blended learning is not simply placing technology in the classroom or providing students access to online courses. Rather, blended learning utilizes technology to restructure traditional school models by promoting data-driven and individualized instruction and leveraging the strengths of effective educators, with the ultimate goal of advancing student achievement.

In Fiscal Year 2015, Gov. Deal’s budget included $5 million for the Innovation Fund, in part to implement blended learning and competency based learning.[5] In December 2014, GOSA awarded two grants to Fulton County and Thomas County Schools for $1.25 million and $960,000, respectively. These pilot programs aim to utilize blended learning to increase graduation rates and improve student achievement on English, science, and mathematics state and district assessments.  For example, Thomas County School’s Bishop Hall Charter High School serves nontraditional students who face many personal and academic challenges.  To meet students’ needs, BHCS has implemented an enriched virtual model of blended learning where students take both online courses and in-person courses on campus.  This model allows students to customize their schedules, learn both on and off campus, and move at their own pace – allowing them control over the time, place, and path of their learning.  Based on a survey administered by the program’s evaluator in April 2015, 74% of surveyed BHCS students agreed or strongly agreed that this flexible learning environment allows them to be a better student.[6] In the coming year, the grantees will report more quantitative outcomes from the grants.

In addition, the programs will train teachers and faculty to integrate technology effectively into their classrooms and teach in a blended learning setting.  For example, Fulton County’s Bear Creek Middle School, in partnership with New Classrooms, strategically led math teachers through a variety of professional development to prepare them to implement the blended learning model.[7]  First, New Classrooms trained both the school’s principal and mathematics director on the blended learning model.  Following that training, teachers participated in a 10-day simulation of blended learning with 83 students.  The purpose of this simulation was to introduce teachers to the various modalities – independent practice, teacher-led instruction, virtual instruction, and collaborative groups.  Following this simulation, teachers attended 15 hours of summer training and were also able to visit blended learning classrooms in Charlotte and Chicago to observe the model and ask questions. 

In its final recommendations released in December 2015, the Governor’s Education Reform Commission recommended the expansion of competency-based learning.  Specifically, the Commission recommends leveraging the Innovation Fund to include competency-based learning pilots and creating more opportunities for students to progress at their pace of mastery. 

Recommendation 9: Review and align into a single document, policy, or law all dual enrollment and competency-based options already available in Georgia, so the options are more easily understood by students and parents.

Significant progress was made to meet this recommendation during the 2015 legislative session. Senate Bills 2 and 132 consolidated three dual enrollment programs into one Move On When Ready Program, clarified that 9th-12th graders were eligible for dual enrollment, and broadened the courses that could be taken. In addition, high school students who complete 9th and 10th grade core courses and then earn an associate’s degree, a technical diploma, or two technical certificate programs in a career pathway are now able to earn a high school diploma. While not directly relating to digital learning, this change provides more opportunities for high school students to have more control over the path, place, and pace of their learning.

Looking Forward

The Digital Learning Task Force recommendations and the progress made over the last two years have laid the groundwork for the state to fully leverage digital learning’s potential to improve student achievement. In the coming years, the continued investment in infrastructure, expansion of the GaDOE’s online resources, and the lessons learned from the Innovation Fund grantees should facilitate more opportunities for students to have some control over the time, place, path and/or pace of their learning.

 

[1] This education update does not address Recommendations 3, 8, 10, or 12, which have not been implemented to date.

[2] The DLTF’s third recommendation is to increase the availability of wireless connectivity in communities, allowing students to access learning resources outside of school. CFC addresses recommendations 1 and 2.

[3] Source: Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice.  Specifically, 36,603 students took 52,290 courses in 2014-2015.

[5] The Innovation Fund has also utilized these funds to provide grants focused on applied learning with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, and teacher and leader development. For more information, see here.

[6] Source: Thomas County’s Innovation Fund Evaluation Report

[7] Specifically, teachers received training in the Teach to One (TTO) blended learning model.