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Michael B. Horn: Utah online education proposal would expand access and accountability

By Michael B. Horn

Published: Wednesday, March 2 2011 7:52 p.m. MST

Utah's legislators have a historic opportunity before them right now to transform the state's education system by prioritizing the success of each individual student, which will catapult the state ahead of the rest of the nation.

In a nutshell, a bill currently working its way through the Utah Legislature does two things, both of which revolutionize access and accountability and will deliver a world-class education to every Utah student and school.

First, the proposed law, known as the Statewide Online Education Program or SB65, allows dollars to follow any high school student down to the individual course level for any state-approved online course. This means that starting next year, any Utah high school could have the means to offer any student any course that he or she needed to pursue — no matter where that school was located. Students would not only be able to access any of the Advanced Placement courses or any number of foreign language offerings, for example, they would also be able to have access to multiple state-approved providers so they could seek out the best content and teachers for their needs.

Schools will be able to focus on their local strengths without sacrificing any of the choices for their students — and even expanding them through the use of online courses. Teachers who are the very best in their subject matter will also be able to teach online and reach any student anywhere in the state. Utilizing online learning in this way will also eliminate scheduling conflicts and a lack of highly qualified teachers as barriers for students, as they will be able to take courses when and where it makes sense for them.

Second, the bill creates a level of accountability on the online course providers never before seen en masse in public education to ensure that Utah's students are not only gaining access to any course offering, but are gaining access to only the best in educational opportunities.

Online course providers would only receive a significant portion — 40 percent — of the total funding if the student successfully completed the course. This is a level of accountability that has never been seen before in education, and it would incentivize online providers to compete along what really matters: whether the student is learning.

As a result, online providers would have strong financial incentives to push their courses to be of higher and higher quality and better individualize for different student needs. If they don't, they will lose out on full funding and will not be able to continue to operate.

Because the bill creates a system that will keep track of the performance of the different online providers — be they neighboring districts, charter schools, the Utah Electronic High School or others — students, with the help of their parents and guidance counselors, will be able to take the courses that have good track records that match their needs.

Online learning is not new to Utah. Several of Utah's districts and charters have a rich history of providing access to online courses and full-time online programs for their students. But the state as a whole has not been able to harness the true transformational power of online learning because of several barriers that have stood in the way. This bill eliminates those and seizes the opportunity that online learning holds for all students no matter where they live in the state.

By focusing on completion and learning, not how long students sit in their seats, it breeds a dynamic that is focused on what each individual student needs. Over time this should save the state significant dollars in remediation costs and allow some students to complete their degrees faster with college credit.

The promise of digital learning — personalized learning to meet each student's unique needs — is the future for America's students. Utah's students are poised to reap those benefits of digital learning now.

Michael B. Horn is the co-author with Clayton M. Christensen of "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns" and the executive director of education at Innosight Institute, a think tank devoted to promoting innovation in education and health care.

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