Research & Commentary: Digital Learning

Published April 14, 2011

Government budget shortfalls and the proven success of digital learning are causing many states and school districts to consider using new technology to make K-12 education more efficient. Some charter schools are already using digital learning and reporting positive results:

* The Arizona charter school Carpe Diem uses a blended learning model mixing time at computer stations with the assistance of an aide or coach with time in more conventional classrooms. The school has 240 students in grades 6 through 12. Test scores have been excellent, with some students testing in the 98th percentile on the Terra Nova tests.

* Rocketship Education, a California charter school provider, has achieved $500,000 in annual savings by using computer time to reallocate resources toward a smaller number of highly effective teachers and facilitator/coaches.

Many states now allow virtual charter schools, in which students study at home and interact with teachers and coaches online. These schools have a lower per-pupil cost than conventional bricks-and-mortar schools and produce comparable or superior academic results.

Digital learning can make conventional public education more efficient and affordable. A student with a personal computer or iPad can get free access to thousands of educational videos from sources such as Khan Academy, plus free or inexpensive access to literally millions of books.

Public policies, however, impede the spread of digital education by, for example, sending tax money to bureaucracies (districts) rather than to parents, requiring minimum “seat time,” and limiting class size. These rules expand employment, not learning, and they make it difficult to reward good teachers and principals. These old ideas and the hiring of large numbers of nonteaching staff are being challenged by a new generation of education entrepreneurs and policymakers.

Organizations such as the International Association for K-12 Online Learning and the Digital Learning Council provide information about digital learning for policymakers, educators, and parents.

The following articles provide additional information on digital learning.

The Way of the Future: Carpe Diem
Education researcher Jay P. Greene evaluates the Carpe Diem Charter School in Yuma, Arizona. He observes, “They use less staff than a typical model, and have cash reserves in the bank despite relatively low per pupil funding in Arizona.”

Carpe Diem Charter School Ranked No. 1 in Yuma County by AIMS Scores
A Yuma Sun article on the Carpe Diem Charter School finds the program fosters success: “The main reason Carpe Diem’s AIMS scores are so high is students are assessed not only at the beginning of the year but nearly every day with written or oral quizzes, Chet Crain, academic counselor, said.”

California Charter ‘Rockets’ to Hybrid Learning Success
This article highlights the innovative model used by a California charter school: “Danner says teachers should be treated like white-collar professionals. Demands on teachers’ time and energy are less than the intensive KIPP model but greater than a typical California district elementary school. His schools are able to maintain low class sizes while hiring only three out of every four teachers needed in a traditional setting.”

A Summary of Research on the Effectiveness of K-12 Online Learning
This report summarizes the U.S. Department of Education’s meta-analysis of 51 studies of online research: “The overall results of the “meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

Digital Learning Now!
This report from the Foundation for Excellence in Education details 10 elements of high-quality digital learning. The report notes, “Digital learning can customize and personalize education so all students learn in their own style at their own pace, which maximizes their chances for success in school and beyond. With digital learning, every student—from rural communities to inner cities—can access high quality and rigorous courses in every subject, including foreign languages, math and science.”

Michigan Study Heralds Virtual Learning Gains
The Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy analyzes the potential cost savings from expanding digital learning in Michigan, citing research on the experiences of other states: “For instance, Florida Virtual School, which has 214,000 course enrollments, cost Florida taxpayers about 17 percent less per pupil than Florida’s traditional brick-and-mortar schools did.”

A Special Report on the Emerging Policy Debates in Virtual Education
This collection of articles and research on the impact of virtual education was published in Education Week in 2010. “This special report aims to highlight the progress made in the e-learning arena, as well as the administrative, funding, and policy barriers that some experts say are slowing the growth of this form of education. It also examines the trends that are likely to force policymakers to re-examine the current rules of engagement for virtual learning.”

For further information on this subject, visit the School Reform News Web site at, the InfoTech & Telecom News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, or PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

Nothing in this message is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. If you have any questions about this issue or the Heartland Web site, contact Bruno Behrend, director of Heartland’s Center for School Reform, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].