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How Government Policy Drives e-Learning

By Laurie Rowell / October 2010

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How Government Policy Drives e-Learning

October 12, 2010

Educators spend their lives neck deep in the tactics of education, but like most who labor on the front lines, they don't get to devise grand strategy. Instead, the education students receive at tomorrow's public schools, colleges, and universities is being shaped today by legislators and agencies that create public policy. It's these policies that determine how technological tools will be used in education, the shape these tools will take, and how students will gain access to them.

Historically, most of the nations of the world have charged ministries of education with the task of determining the broad design of a country's educational system while states, provinces, school districts, and teachers figure out how to educate within the defined parameters. But technology has altered the slow rhythm of this move from strategy to tactics. The development and implementation of government policy can't match the ever-accelerating speed of technological innovation.

This creates a challenge for policymakers, who must try to write policy that won't become outdated before the metaphorical ink is dry. It's a challenge, too, for educators, who must coordinate their tactics with the larger strategy while recognizing the effects of the web, cell phones, or any other tool on the international zeitgeist. And so it is clearly important to educators, policymakers, and everyone involved in educational technology to examine the current policies we're working under, to understand why these policies function as they do, and to try to predict how policy now being written will affect technology and learning in the coming decade.

How Do We Accommodate The Next Generation Of Students?

US lawmakers interpret the need to accommodate the next generation of students as a need to respond to the workforce they'll be entering. This market-driven approach recognizes a global workplace that puts US students in competition with their international peers. But whether the policies of past years have recognized the best approach to achieve that goal is not clear.

What is clear is that upcoming legislation promises us more of the same. The key bill pending that will affect childhood and young adult education is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly known as No Child Left Behind. Also in the queue for reauthorization is the Workforce Investment Act, or WIA (pronounced "wee-ah"), which addresses higher education and career preparation concerns.

"Current focus is on ensuring that more students graduate with a high quality degree that they could use in the labor force," says Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper, President of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP). For legislators and policy makers, the emphasis in elementary and secondary education is "on making sure that high school students graduate ready for college, and in higher education on ensuring college students graduate ready for careers."

The problem is, if we keep churning out high school graduates who are fully capable of going on to college, we complicate an already existing problem: brick-and-mortar institutions struggle now to make room for the students they have. Classrooms, labs, and lecture halls have finite limits, and when those are reached, students will have to be turned away. "Public, state-run institutions in particular are placing constraints on enrollment," Cooper explains. The need to stretch seating capacity beyond the physical limitations of existing buildings fuels a drive for e-learning. In that regard, e-learning is a powerful tool for tailoring curriculum to ensure that students have easier access to more kinds of courses.

So if technology is the answer to accommodating the next generation of students, the document that specifies how the US will go about it must the National Educational Technology Plan. The Office of Educational Technology (in the Department of Education) has just completed a second draft of this document that serves as a statement of where we expect education to go. "In 2020 we want to be the top nation in the world in college graduates," explains Karen Cator, Director of the Office of Educational Technology. "To do that we need to leverage technology and create the most engaging learning environment possible."

The starting point is more universal access: broadband everywhere. "We want to work across all agencies and the private sector to make sure broadband access is available in all corners of the country," says Cator. The star players in this field are the Department of Commerce and the Department of Agriculture, both apportioning out Recovery Act money for the US broadband build-out. Cator points out that these two departments have extended more than $12 billion in grants to get broadband power to the people.

This kind of infrastructure support can have a profound effect on student connectivity. "Just as an example, three weeks ago the Department of Agriculture awarded some rural broadband grants," she explains. "We sent them a file with a listing of the public schools that we serve, and they came back and said 'these grants will cover 1,940 of your schools and 550,000 of your students.'"

Another trick to getting computing into the hands of students lies in providing the necessary devices—and Recovery Act broadband funding has helped here, too. "In multiple large cities across the country tens of thousands of computers have been deployed at community centers as a result of the Department of Commerce funding," says Cator.

But community center computers are not enough by themselves to resolve the shortage of student-held devices, and that leaves a problem we have yet to solve. The current approach is one familiar to many a college administrator: to make the most of what's available. "One of the things we're finding is that more students have mobiles that put the power of the Internet in their pockets than we had understood." That has given rise to a strategy of leveraging the devices that students already have at home or at school, and creating policies for those tools to be used in education. The plan, she explains, is to "augment existing tools to ensure all students will have what they need."

Unfortunately, augmenting existing tools so every student has the necessary devices for electronic education is more a recognition of what needs to be done on the national level than it is an actual plan to do it. "Doing this will require creative solutions at the community level," says Cator. "Every community has different needs, so we'll need to (1) come up with creative strategies and (2) share those strategies so that other communities can learn from them."

Sadly for the educational system, technology does not wait for policy. It leaps ahead on its own timetable. Thus a teacher may find it necessary to grab the tech as it zings past and work it into a syllabus on the fly. Trends and students move faster than policy makers can dream up policies, approve them, fund them, and roll them out. And that means there are going to be spots in our national educational policy that lag behind what is happening in the classroom.

How Will Education Be Financed?

"Everything that everyone talks about is money." Dr. Cooper, over at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, chuckles as she relates a statement made in her hearing recently by a college president about his institution: "There is no problem I have that money can't solve. "

Certainly the current economic downturn has increased the focus on the value of post secondary education for the individual and for the nation as a whole. Yet a number of states face financial crises, and their need to cut back on faculty positions, postpone new construction, and cut programs at state colleges and universities has compromised the ability of those institutions to meet their commitments to the students that depend on them for an education.

"I would surmise that because of these [financial] challenges, many people will believe that e-learning provides an alternative to physical institutions," says Cooper. And no doubt she's right. Bandwidth, while not free, does cost much less than new buildings and the chairs, desks, and whiteboards needed to fill them. Furthermore, e-learning can ease some of the economic strain on students, as it reduces commuting expenses and allows for a flexible timetable that accommodates more job options.

Financial aid issues and cost concerns have always been there for colleges and universities. "That's nothing new," says Cooper. "But now it's played out against the backdrop of a global financial crisis, so no one can predict what the outcome will be or how long the current situation will last."

"Even if things turn around in the next three to five years," she says, "in the short term there will be money issues, and in the long term there won't be enough for everyone. We need to think creatively about how we can meet our societal needs and educate more students, but be sure that we do it in a way that is affordable and accessible for them."

It would be handy for all if the National Educational Technology Plan came backed by many large, gleaming sacks of coins because that would help with many of the challenges the plan presents. Unfortunately, it doesn't offer broad funding; it's focused on saving cash rather than providing it.

For one thing, the plan suggests using a new educational model based on something other than seat time. A competency-based model, for example, would allow those students who could go faster or further through a course of study to do just that, thus providing greater cost efficiency.

Second, savings should accrue as we shift from a predominantly print-based classroom to a digital learning environment. "We don't know if digital textbooks will be 30 percent of the cost of print-based texts or whether they'll just be better at the same cost," says Cator. "But we do know that there are huge affordances once we can add technological solutions to the textbook environment." Things like simulations, embedded assessments, and visualizations of complex mathematical concepts could certainly change the students' relationships with their texts. With luck those benefits will come at lower costs, too. "While we aren't yet sure of where that will take us with regard to economies of scale, we do know there will be savings to not having to print and [not] having to ship."

How Will Quality Be Measured And Assessed?

So how do we resolve questions about whether Dick and Jane qualify to graduate from high school and whether they go on to a college or university? The "No Child Left Behind" approach of the past decade—and one presumes of the foreseeable future--depends heavily on standardized testing.

"There is no move to switch from testing, evaluation, and measurement of students to rethinking the structure of education," says Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of the Institute For The Future (IFTF).

A long-time scholar in the field of education, she occasionally takes her research out into the field, talking with young people about what they value in the education system. Their comments are unsettling. "I used to love to read for pleasure," some tell her, "But now I only do assigned reading."

Could this be indicative of a system that isn't functioning properly? One that limits itself to "teaching to the test"? Educators have long recognized the problems with standardized exams: unless very carefully constructed, they are subject to cultural bias, they support educated "guessing," and they don't serve any useful pedagogical purpose.

So why have policymakers in Washington DC promoted them so aggressively?

Gorbis speculates that as a population we want easy answers. "We want to see the numbers." We want to see that a student has passed the test, but we aren't always anxious to investigate what passing the test means. Then, too, there's a whole industry behind testing. "Testing institutions are very, very difficult to change."

To be fair, there are some arguments in favor of multiple-choice bubble tests. Other kinds of evaluations can be more time-consuming to grade, and a subjective measurement of any kind is, well, subjective, so bias on the part of the evaluator can interfere with a solid assessment.

But while standardized tests may have a place, student scores on these exams probably shouldn't be sole evaluators of a student's ability, a teacher's worth, or a school's effectiveness. They don't promote discovery, creative thinking, or complex problem-solving. They certainly don't provide a clear link to the kinds of difficulties we confront in everyday life. As a result, a curriculum that focuses too heavily on getting students to pass such tests may not be teaching them any useful skills beyond the skill of test-taking.

There may, however, be good news on the way for those who would like to see us move away from dependence on standardized tests. Cator also talks about another kind of assessment change: a persistent learning record: "It's part portfolio and part transcript," she explains. This is something students can take along with them from campus to campus and into their professional lives and serve as an assessment of their learning progress.

In addition, the Department of Education is spearheading a change in testing approaches. Secretary Arne Duncan's recent speech Beyond the Bubble Tests heralds what he calls "Assessment 2.0," citing two consortia of states (encompassing 44 of them) that recently won substantial awards from the Department of Education to develop new kinds of testing. According to Secretary Duncan's speech, the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium "will test students' ability to read complex texts, complete research projects, excel at classroom speaking and listening assignments, and work with digital media." The SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) will employ "computer adaptive technology" to "ask students questions pitched to their skill level, based on their previous answers."

Don't expect your current high-schooler to reap the rewards of this new approach. The new assessments are not scheduled to connect with your local school district until the 2014-2015 school year. Further, while Duncan's speech talks about the importance of other subjects like science, history, foreign languages, civics, and the arts, the new assessments cover only English and math.

Where Do We Go From Here?

When we ask about where to go next, it's time to consult with a futurist, and Gorbis obliges. "It would be good to have a national conversation about what media literacy is," she suggests. For one thing, solid media literacy could support learning that emerges naturally from curiosity.

"With all these technologies available there is so much opportunity; learning can happen any time any place, when it happens in context." Talking with friends over coffee about current news, you might pull up an article on your iPhone. Watching a sitcom, you might check IMDB to determine where you've seen that actor's face before. "That kind of learning is in a moment," says Gorbis. "Students can pick it up right there."

For an example of this kind of education, she points to Biocurious, a Bay Area community biotech experimentation project. To get the enterprise underway, founders initially bought up slightly outdated lab equipment and invited people in to learn by doing biology experiments. This is the kind of effort Gorbis finds exciting. "Why not invite people into schools to do experiments, just like the creators of Biocurious did? Scientists love to share," she says. "Open up spaces and allow for these kinds of communities of interest to grow."

Moving her vision online, it's easy to imagine a class listening to an expert on live video and watching experiments while students type in questions via some mechanism like Live Question Tool.

Another important change Gorbis would like to see is a move away from the memorization of facts and into the realm of problem-solving, a process she sees as naturally collaborative. "In real-world environments, problem-solving is not something you do on your own. You may not have the knowledge to solve a problem, but an ability to ask and engage the right people." Some students, she explains, may be extremely skilled in engaging others and extracting that knowledge—and that skill should be encouraged in a collaborative atmosphere.

"Learning is a social process," says Gorbis, and for that reason, she's not convinced that all learning should be done online. For one thing, she would hate to lose the energy and drive students generate within their physical social group. "They want to shine in that circle. They want to participate in the conversation." But she does think there are ways to integrate technologies to complement what transpires in the classroom. "They are not replacements for the social aspect of learning, but effective education leverages them to augment rather than replace these kinds of activities."

Gorbis would like to see education policy that supports the collaborative use of the internet, new media, and the broad potential of distance learning. "I'm not seeing any of that coming out of educational policy," says Gorbis. "I'm not seeing any serious rethinking of education as a structure we have created."

Hard to argue with her summary, but there is hope we might be moving in the right direction. Over at the Office of Educational Technology, Cator tells me something so familiar it sounds like an echo: "Learning is incredibly participatory; it's a social experience." She talks about the promise of online learning environments that are becoming more social, moving away from the image of the lone student plunking away at a computer, taking a course. It's something to look forward to, and it's encouraging that somebody who shares this vision is in the right position to instantiate it. "I think the opportunity for creating a much more interesting and participatory environment, leveraging online spaces will be quite exciting."

A number of educators in recent years have called for a national e-learning framework, but Cator doesn't see it forming on the horizon yet. For now, education in the US remains a state responsibility. She does see economies being realized as states begin to work with one another, but currently there's no push in the political arena for a national learning curriculum or e-learning platform. "I do think we'll see people working together more and more because it's easier to collaborate across state lines, across district lines, even country lines as we take things online."

And that's as good a reminder as any that where policy stops, educators step in to build the education system we take forward.

e-Learning and Policy Around the World

Internationally, e-learning policy is handled in a wide variety of ways, depending on government structure and the level of determination to incorporate it into the curriculum. In general, those countries where education is handled by state or provincial governments within their national boundaries find it more difficult to provide a coherent national e-learning policy that covers all public education.


Technology's use in higher education in the United Kingdom is overseen by the publicly funded Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), which acts as an advisory committee to funding councils. Nicola Yeeles, Public Relations Officer at JISC, explains that UK institutions of higher learning operate under the 2009 revision of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). That legislation doesn't deal with e-learning as if it is a "specialist area" but as part of the tech toolkit for teaching and learning. "E-learning in the UK is now part of a wider discussion about how learning can be enhanced by more effective uses of digital technologies," says Yeeles. For those interested in further study, she recommends downloading the JISC report about e-learning called Effective Practice in a Digital Age [PDF] and giving special attention to pages 6-7.


From the time Malaysia's Vision 2020 Development Plan was proposed back in 1991, the country has taken an aggressive approach toward technology in general and e-learning in particular. The government's goal has been "to establish a scientific and progressive society that is not only a consumer of technology but also a contributor to the scientific and technological civilization of the future," says Rozhan M. Indrus, Professor of Open & Distance Learning & Technogogy at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Indrus is also the Publication Secretariat for the 4th International Malaysian Educational Technology Convention 2010.

One outgrowth of the plan was the proliferation of e-learning at all educational levels, spurred on by a series of legislation, including, in recent years, the Smart School Roadmap (2005) and the National Broadband Initiatives (NBI)(2010). Distance learning In higher education was pioneered by the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in 1971, says Professor Indrus while the first learning management system was established in 1998 at University Malaya. Indrus sees copyright clarification as the next important legislation that will affect e-learning in Malaysia."This new form of highly accessible authorship, production and storage in cyberspace raises questions and perhaps magnifies legal complexities relating to the freedom and regulation of such activities."

New Zealand

While schools in New Zealand are funded centrally by the government, they are self-governing and self managing, so New Zealand does not have state or local education authorities, explains Howard Baldwin, Manager of E-Learning Innovation at the New Zealand Ministry of Education. That said, the 2007 centrally mandated New Zealand curriculum recognizes the role of e-learning in the country's schools."This explicit inclusion is by far the most important piece of government policy re e-learning," says Baldwin. "Because of it, schools are able to innovate in any way that supports raising student achievement in their communities across the entire range of e-learning possibilities." For those interested in following up, he offers a link to the New Zealand Curriculum and points to page 38.


Canada does not have a single national plan or piece of legislation that charts the country's e-learning journey. Instead, individual organizations and provinces develop their own policies, explains Erin Mills, Senior Researcher at the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), a non-profit national research organization. Last year, the CCL published their 145-page report State of E-learning in Canada [PDF], which chronicles the government initiatives for information and communication technology (ICT)initiatives in education, involving a complex of government and industry collaboration. "Because learning and technology cross many policy boundaries, no single federal department has direct overall control. As a result, several e-learning programs have been delivered through partnerships between various government departments."


Singapore has taken a measured, proactive approach to e-learning with a series of master plans have directed the use of technology in schools. The current Third Masterplan for ICT in Education promotes collaboration among teachers, promises trials of new assessment approaches, and anticipates improved connectivity and universal technology access for all students in public schools. The plan also calls upon businesses and institutions of higher learning to partner with government for innovation in technology-based educational efforts. Singapore's highly centralized approach also includes a government-designed syllabus with electronic learning support imbedded in it and FutureSchools, a program that designates specific schools for experimentation with immersive environments, interactive learning, and other technological innovations.

About the Author

Laurie Rowell is a freelance writer living in Issaquah, Washington. She writes for eLearn, EDUCAUSE, and several other publications and web sites.


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