Kentucky Explores Education Options for ‘Digital Natives’

Published September 21, 2011

Digital learning offers great potential for addressing two of Kentucky’s most pressing education needs: high costs and dropout rates, according to a new Bluegrass Institute report.

The report is part of a national effort started by former governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise to emphasize the ability of digital learning to save money, tailor instruction, close achievement gaps, and lift high school graduation rates.

“We’re going to have to challenge ourselves to look beyond the traditional learning environment to cost-effective, real-world learning that prepares students for future horizons,” said state Rep. Addia Wuchner (R-Florence), an Education Committee member. “Today’s students are digital natives. They’re smart and capable of learning in nontraditional environments; they’re growing up in a world that we could only have dreamed of.”

Online Academy Virtually Unknown
The Barren Academy of Virtual and Expanded Learning (BAVEL) in southern Kentucky accepts students from anywhere in the state. It allows students to either take classes their traditional public school doesn’t offer, including Advanced Placement courses, or achieve their degree entirely online.

Many of BAVEL’s 110 students were previously at risk of dropping out, but now are graduating and attending college. The school is, however, virtually unknown among policymakers, said report author and Bluegrass Institute education analyst Richard Innes.

Last year, 95 percent of eligible BAVEL students graduated, while its eleventh graders scored 19.0 on the ACT, slightly above the 18.8 statewide average and much higher than the state’s average among at-risk students.

Overcoming Funding Obstacles
Like many educational alternatives, online learning providers receive a fraction of the state’s per-pupil spending in traditional schools.

When a student transfers to BAVEL from a traditional district, the academy receives $3,662 of the $9,962 public schools receive per student.  This money only follows students to BAVEL if the district they want to leave agrees to release them.

“Parent choice in a child’s education is very important – the money we appropriate for the student needs to follow that student,” Wuchner said. “That being said, I think there’s some ways [for funding] to be a win-win.”

Wuchner suggested allowing districts to keep 25 percent of state funding when a student transfers to a digital school, with the other 75 percent following the student, to ease challenges for local officials who base budgets on student populations. She offered bill with similar provisions in Kentucky’s last legislative session, allowing students who graduate early to take 75 percent of their per-pupil funding with them to higher education.

Despite the funding disparity, BAVEL is achieving equal or better results than the average Kentucky school for 37 percent of the cost. This provides an edge to digital learning and school choice proponents, who hope this efficient, effective model receives support from legislators attending the state’s burgeoning budget crisis and stubborn dropout problems, Innes said.

Online Education in Turnarounds
Terry Holliday, the state’s new, reform-minded Commissioner of Education, hired Dewey Hensley to oversee a new department charged with turning around Kentucky’s failing schools. Virtual learning will play a vital role in these efforts, Hensley said.

“We’re committed to creating systems that effectively meet the needs of each child,” Hensley said. “And if you want to provide access to everyone, you have to think innovatively.”

Conner High School in northern Kentucky is one of the state’s best-performing school districts, and eight of its 1,300 students have begun taking some classes online. Superintendent Randy Poe told reporters students may learn some courses better online, and that digital learning is “changing the face of education.”

Removing Structural Obstacles
Among other digital learning obstacles in Kentucky, administrators need credible information on which programs work best, better hardware and software, and to address security and bandwidth concerns, the report says.

A summer survey of Kentucky teachers revealed that Internet connectivity and bandwidth prevents attempts to incorporate technology into teaching. Some schools only have dial-up Internet, “which can’t support decent programs,” Innes said.

Because Kentucky schools, rather than districts or the state, must make all curriculum decisions, ignorance of effective programs also stymies attempts to incorporate digital learning, the report said.

Internet Info
“Digital Learning Now,” by Richard Innes, Bluegrass Institute:

Image by Rob