Independent online learning — recommendations




(Submitted January 3, 2008)

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the issue of education

I believe that the Readiness task force should take a strong position in
support of self-guided online learning, which is expanding rapidly across
the country.

Because the issue is so broad, I would like to offer a rather concrete
proposal to provoke a conversation:

*The Department of Education should be chartered to form a joint venture to
create a state-of-the-art self-guided online learning program in mathematics
for grades 7 through 12.  * I am suggesting a program for older students as
a starting point; support for K-6 learning could be developed over time.

The joint venture partners might include a major education publisher, a
software development firm with experience in gaming software, perhaps an
additional software firm with experience managing larger development
projects, selected school districts and an appropriate institution of higher
learning (probably the University of Massachusetts).

The joint venture would develop a software suite with the following

   – mathematics learning content building from sixth grade level
   (remedial for middle-school students) to mastery required for MCAS and AP
   calculus exams (fully consistent with existing DOE curriculum frameworks);
   – reliability and ease of use to allow independent learning by as many
   students as possible;
   – rich and engaging learning environment, using the best ideas in
   mathematics pedagogy and the best of gaming virtual reality techniques;
   – breadth of offering to accommodate continued engagement over six
   years for students of varying interests and abilities;
   – usage tracking and testing to allow monitoring of both student
   effort and student learning;
   – coordination with proctored in-school exams to confirm mastery;
   – integration of support for persons with learning disabilities,
   possibly using the Universal Design for Learning framework;
   – broad-band and DVD distribution options to allow home use by
   students in homes or areas without broadband access    (monitoring
   results would be compact enough to be transmitted via dial-up links).

The software should also be built so as to facilitate community
contributions to its content.  Subject to appropriate controls, it should be
easy for classroom teachers to add content — supplemental concepts,
exercises, etc.  This may not only limit costs and enrich the program, but
also may build broader ownership for the program.

The selected school districts would work with the joint venture to phase-in
and beta test the program.  Beta testing would shake out the software, but
also develop alternative models for supervision and support of students
using the software.

The institution of higher education would administer the monitoring of
student progress (including administering exams to confirm course
completion),  offering real-time reporting to the local school districts.
The institution would also offer a pathway for students who go beyond the AP
calculus level before they reach the 12th grade.  Finally, the institution
would drive the roll-out of the program, pacing expansion and recruiting as
necessary.   The priority in roll-out would be secondary school students,
but ultimately, access would be permitted for all people seeking to improve
mathematics skills – including adults retraining for career change.  The
program could be instituted with post-secondary degree programs at the
institution of higher education.

When the program is ready for broader roll-out, all Massachusetts School
Districts would be required to allow high school students to elect and
receive full credit for verified self-guided mathematics learning and to
release students from participation in traditional mathematics classes.
While at the high school level, districts would be required to allow
students to opt for fully independent learning, at both middle school and
high school levels, school districts would also be permitted to use the
program as a supplement (as opposed to a replacement for) classroom

At the early stages of roll-out, districts could choose but would not be
required to offer coaching support for students who elect independent
learning.    Similarly, districts could choose but would not be required to
offer in-school computers for the use of participating students.   Overtime,
consensus standards about necessary support for online learners might evolve
and, at that point, it might make sense to mandate certain types and levels
of support.

State grants for professional development and for technology acquisition
could address equity issues where student participation appears inhibited by
lack of mentoring resources and/or lack of computer access.   The higher
education partner could provide training opportunities for teachers seeking
to work with the program – possibly online.

The private partners would be invited to supply a substantial portion of the
needed development capital.  They would earn their return through future
sales of the program in other states and English speaking countries.

The state might need to make an initial direct investment and would sustain
modest ongoing administrative costs.    School districts would not be
subject to any charge for online learners, but the state might reward the
venture partners with additional compensation if subscriptions expand.
the state might negotiate a share of royalties for out-of-state

The department would oversee ongoing evaluation of the program, and would
strive to develop a clear understanding of the diverse ways that the program
is being used and integrated (or not integrated) with other modern
instructional approaches.

If successful, the proposed joint venture could:

   – strengthen Massachusetts industry leadership in education and
   software technology;
   – improve the quality of mathematics instruction in Massachusetts
   – offer better paced instruction to students who need to move slower
   or are able to move faster in mathematics;
   – give students an opportunity to exercise more personal initiative
   and take responsibility for their progress;
   – offer a pathway for gifted mathematics learners to progress rapidly
   and develop their talents to a higher level;
   – allow a long-run reduction in the teaching resources needed for
   basic mathematics instruction;
   – develop a new approach to learning which could be expanded to other
   subject areas over time.

It is important to acknowledge some uncertainties and speak to some

First, computers cannot fully replace teachers, any more than books can
fully replace teachers. Most believe that expansion of education is part of
improving global competitiveness – early education, extended learning time,
more participation in college.    The teaching profession will remain a
large and vital force in our economy.

Yet, at the same time, most believe that limiting the growth of government
costs is also important to competitiveness.     All should welcome any
possibility of expanding education options while controlling costs.    If a
substantial percentage of students did a substantial percentage of their
learning independently, then teachers could focus on providing higher
quality learning experiences in smaller classes.    At a minimum, even if
basic class time is not reduced, schools could use technology to extend
learning time.

Second, teacher mentoring and the group experiences of the classroom are
terribly valuable as human experiences.     Children need to learn to work
with others and over-engagement in virtual realities created by computers
can be dangerous.     Yet, we should not idealize the childhood experience
of being in school.    Many children can benefit from some learning time
away from the social pressures of the classroom and the negative influences
of the hallway.

Third, it is by no means clear whether or how much online learning will
reduce costs – we don’t know how much coaching students, on average, will
continue to need to support their online learning.    It also remains to be
seen whether a significant portion of middle and high school students will
adapt to independent online learning at all.   Even if there is no material
reduction of necessary class-room or teacher mentoring time, the software
could be a great boon to both students and teachers.   A really excellent
online learning suite could be heavily used in classes– enriching courses
for students and improving the work life of teachers, for example by
eliminating the labor of assembling and grading problem sets.

Finally, only more experience will tell what types and levels of learning
are best suited to an online environment.    The common incoming assumption
is that the most gifted and motivated students are the ones that will
benefit most.    However, it may also be that students who struggle with
mathematics may find it a great relief to be able to struggle privately and
master the basics at their own pace.   A well designed software program may
also entertain and engage students who appear unmotivated in a class room
setting.  There are anecdotal reports that children with some types of
learning disabilities (ADHD and Aspergers) do especially well in online

Clearly though, a great many children take very quickly to computers (even
more readily than to books).  The real question is not whether we will make
increasing use of self-guided online learning in the 21st century, but
whether Massachusetts will get ahead of the transition, do it well, and
build on its momentum towards leadership in the knowledge economy.

As a threshold issue, before moving forward, DOE and potential joint venture
partners would want to do a thorough scan of the markets and products under
development.   Even if there is no off-the-shelf product that meets
Massachusetts needs, there might be elements of a platform that could be
adapted or incorporated.  Below, please find links to some apparently
credible organizations committed to expanding online learning, which offer
reviews, overviews, directories and considerations for designing programs.
Note that not all of these resources describe independent self-guided online
learning as outlined above.  There is a continuum of online learning
concepts ranging from fully independent learning as outlined above to use of
computers as limited homework adjuncts to classroom learning.

A National Primer on K-12 Online Learning

An extensive review of the state of on-line learning.  See especially
p.26ff., discussing state policy development

The Sloan Consortium

Very useful overview site from Sloan Foundation committed to expanding
online learning

Keeping Pace with Online K-12 Learning

A review of state-based programs, supported by a number of states including
VHS in Mass.

Distance Education Links & Resources

An excellent compendium of resources

 There are a number of state/local initiatives that already exist.  These

UMass Online

Virtual High School

A consortium of high schools around the world that offer online courses to
each other’s students.  Founded by the Concord Consortium (

Online High School Diploma Programs & Courses…

A list of HS programs.

Kentucky –
North Dakota –
Pennsylvania –
California –
Alberta, CA-

A selection of state initiatives.

Minnesota, Oklahoma and Washington <>

On-line education aimed at students who do not do well in traditional

Advanced Academics

Private company that sells courses to public schools.


A for-profit online school.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.