The committee room in the State Annex in Trenton was full already when the Joint Committee on Public Schools convened on Tuesday to consider the opportunities that digital learning held for New Jersey public schools. Five minutes after the hearing started, people continued streaming in. Ten minutes later, people lined the walls and choked the doorway. Finally it became too much when a nun couldn't even find a seat, so several dozen chairs were quickly distributed from other rooms.
It was worth cramming into the room to hear the legislators and panelists confront with little rhetoric what every state in the nation is facing: declining revenues and underperforming schools are enabling policy makers to reach across partisan and ideological lines and discuss innovative solutions and how to immediately put them in place. In New Jersey, there was nothing forced about the discussion. Legislators were candid about their lack of understanding of digital and online learning, and they were seeking advice on how to best put digital innovations to work for New Jersey.
Below are some highlights from students, teachers, legislators and panelists including Gov. Bob Wise of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Susan Patrick of iNACOL, Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute, and Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform.
Gov. Wise's presentation was chilling and framed the issue: states face an escalating revenue gap, a growing teacher shortage, and an outcomes gap that is widening. Some of his observations:
- "Demand for quality student outcome is greater and the revenue to get there is less."
- "There are 440 high school in Georgia and only 88 physics teachers -- many who are eligible to retire."
- "The choice for policy making: hunker down OR be boldly innovative delivering education."
In addition to her presentation reviewing the state of online learning, Susan Patrick moderated a panel of with five online students from sixth grade to a recent high school graduate. Having never met before today, and without coaching, the students helped the legislators and the audience see what digital learning was all about. The students' testimony made their schools REAL for everyone. Some of the details the kids helped to explain:
- "Schools in my area didn't prepare students for college, so I enrolled online to get college ready."
- "As an online student, I have takes courses in Geometry, Latin, Algebra I and II, Literature, Government, History, Trigonometry, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Spanish."
Susan Patrick also noted:
- "Growth in online education comes from meeting diverse student needs for college readiness, AP courses, IB diploma, at-risk summer school, student with illnesses and more."
Michael Horn was so persuasive in his discussion of the opportunity that disruptive innovations such as digital learning present that one legislator, Senator Ronald Rice endorsing "Disrupting Class" numerous times throughout the hearing as the key for union supporters, parents and reformers to embrace. Michael made several powerful points:
- "Online learning is gaining adoption. By 2019 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online."
- "Online learning meets dropouts around their lives and work schedules and is an affordable benefit to them."
And he challenged the legislators to act:
- "Make learning student-centric and about the outcomes."
The panelists also provided a specific roadmap for policy discussions to begin, and the action they offered centered on blended learning solutions which combines the best of online and onsite learning.
- Gov. Wise, "75 percent of digital learning is going to be in a blended environment and not replace the teacher."
- Michael Horn, "We are seeing six distinct types of blended or hybrid models including some with very creative team teaching and other new forms not previously considered."
- Susan Patrick, "Blended learning takes the best of online and onsite"
- Jeanne Allen, "State actions spur districts to jump in and innovate as well."
Reactions from legislators to what they heard and learned was extremely positive. Senator Ronald L. Rice, "I'm impressed. This conversation has proven that this should be in traditional schools regardless."
- Assemblywoman Mila M. Jasey, "We need to be boldly innovative and customize learning for children."
- Assemblywoman Joan M. Voss, "Teacher relationships are valuable and you teachers have allayed my fears about online education."
- Assemblyman David W. Wolfe "We're here learn what can be done in New Jersey."
Finally, Gov. Wise noted that specific policy principles would be announced next week when the work of the Digital Learning Council was rolled out. He noted that over 100 policy makers, educators, technologists, philanthropists, entrepreneurs community leaders, and education advocates had worked virtually for three months to design the state-focused recommendations. Wise and former Gov. Jeb Bush were leading the effort, and the two former Governors would announce the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning on December 1 in Washington, DC.
(Bennet Ratcliff covered the event and contributed this article, also posted at edReformer.com)