At the crossroads of education reform
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

During the 19th century, Utah gained a reputation as the "Crossroads of the West" due to its role in linking East Coast states with the Western frontier. The territory in which both the transcontinental telegraph and railroad were connected served as a proving ground for the idea that new technologies could transform the way the world communicated.

Today, with the passage of a new law expanding online education to every high school student, Utah has taken a leading role in testing whether modern technologies can dramatically improve the way children learn. Regardless of the outcome, the state's foray into unknown territory will produce important lessons for other U.S. states and countries throughout the Americas.

Although the idea of using digital technologies to improve education is not new, large-scale implementation of programs like Utah's is. Proponents of digital learning, including the Fordham Institute and Digital Learning Now, emphasize that while new innovations have revolutionized nearly every other professional sector — from agriculture to health care and transportation — the basic methodology for teaching children has remained largely unchanged for decades.

Yet new technologies present extraordinary capabilities that, if used wisely, could drastically improve student learning. Online classes can allow children to learn at their own pace; free up teachers to spend more one-on-one time with students; and broaden access to home schooled, non-traditional, and disabled students.

With these benefits in mind, a group of government, civil society, and business leaders headed by former governor of Florida Republican Jeb Bush and former governor of West Virginia Democrat Bob Wise took it upon themselves in 2010 to create a "roadmap of [digital education] reform for state lawmakers and policy makers."

The so-called Digital Learning Council thus developed 10 elements of high quality digital learning that Utah lawmakers ultimately used to form the basis of the state's new law:

1. Student Eligibility: All students are digital learners.

2. Student Access: All students have access to high quality digital content and online courses.

3. Personalized Learning: All students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider.

4. Advancement: Students progress based on demonstrated competency.

5. Content: Digital content, instructional materials, and online and blended learning courses are high quality.

6. Instruction: Digital instruction and teachers are high quality.

7. Providers: All students have access to multiple high quality providers.

8. Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the quality of content and instruction.

9. Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options, and innovation.

10. Delivery: Infrastructure supports digital learning.

With the implementation of its new law last year, Utah became the first state in the nation to create a comprehensive digital education system based on these recommendations, called the Statewide Online Education Program.

The program is to be rolled out progressively over several years, ultimately allowing any public, private, or home-schooled student to enroll in up to six credits — or a full course load — in the 2016-2017 school year.

Any district or charter school will be able to host the online courses, or can partner with private providers to do so. To promote accountability, providers are paid half of the students' tuition fee up-front, and half upon completion of the course. The legislation also mandates a public report on the effectiveness of providers, including data on student performance on state learning assessments and completion rates (for more information, see the 2011 Keeping Pace report).

While these measures are in line with the Digital Learning Council's recommendations, Paul E. Peterson of Education Next recently criticized what he asserts are important shortcomings of the new program. He argues that it is unduly restrictive, preventing students from starting courses outside of the traditional school year or from taking extra credits without a plan to graduate early.

His biggest critique is that the program is too tied to district authority, as students must make their online course decisions in collaboration with district-paid guidance counselors. Peterson fears that counselors will tend to shepherd students toward courses within their district, thus preventing healthy state-wide competition between providers.

While these critiques represent important details that Utah should continue to work on, they are not crippling flaws. The new legislation does allow course providers to receive full payment even if students take nine extra weeks to complete a semester-long class, thus making room for children who may move slower than their peers. Yet allowing students to start classes early or late implies either headaches for teachers or the need to hire more.

Additionally, allowing students to take extra courses only if they plan to graduate early prevents them from biting off more than they can chew, unless they have a reasonable long-term graduation objective. Finally, risking low enrollment in out-of-district courses may be the price to pay for ensuring that students who will be spending less time in brick-and-mortar schools maintain contact with a guidance counselor who can ensure that they are meeting graduation requirements and planning their schedules wisely.

In an overall evaluation, Digital Learning Now's 2011 Report Card gave Utah (along with neighboring Wyoming) the top scores in the nation for digital education (see the Fordham Institute's ranking of the report cards). And in an op-ed written shortly after the state Senate's passage of the new legislation, Bush and Wise stated that "Utah is on the verge of establishing the best K-12 online learning policy in the country and setting the standard for the rest of the nation."

As any education policy requires long-term observation to determine ultimate outcomes, only time will tell the extent to which Utah's new digital education policy improves student learning. But initial observations and expert recommendations suggest that the state is at the crossroads leading to a new-and-improved era for education. Other U.S. states and countries throughout the Americas should watch closely.

Scott Odell, originally from Logan, is a program assistant for the Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.