California

Q&A with Daniel DeCillis: Major changes needed for California to further digital learning

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Daniel DeCillis, of the California Council on Science and Technology

It seems reasonable to think that California—home to Silicon Valley—would be ahead of the game when it comes to the uses of technology in education. But apparently that isn’t the case. As a growing list of states adopts more digital-friendly school models, the Golden State has actually been slow to shift toward a greater digital presence in schools.

The Digital Learning Council, a nonprofit led by former Govs. Jeb Bush and Bob Wise that tries to advance quality digital education initiatives, released a report in 2011 that ranked California last in regard to advances in technology and digital education.

The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), a nonprofit research group, has started producing reports on the state of digital education in California. It released a white paper, “Digitally Enhanced Education in California,” in March 2011 as a briefing for the California Teachers Advisory Council. A summary of the California Teachers Advisory Council summit, “Imagining the Future: Digitally Enhanced Education in California,” followed in June 2011.

Last month, the CCST released a two-part follow-up to its initial white paper. The first report looks at how digital education is faring in California, while the second focuses on specific policies and legislation that could help or harm the spread of digital learning.

The Hechinger Report recently spoke with the CCST’s Daniel DeCillis, who reviewed and edited “Imagining the Future,” to learn more about what he’s found in his work and what California, in the wake of a fiscal crisis, can do to adopt a more digital approach to education.

Q: What were the largest findings in your report? Was there anything new or groundbreaking?

A: I don’t know that there was anything groundbreakingly new, but it was valuable for us to be able to say there is not a strong foundation of research upon which to evaluate the efficacy of digital education systems. Often finding the lack of evidence is as important as finding strong evidence one way or the other. We’re not saying that digital education should be mandatory or that it should be banned—we’re simply saying that really it’s very early in the game to make substantial judgments, and certainly that’s something you want to take into consideration when you’re talking about large-scale investments.

We did notice that the state needs a consistent vision as to what digital education should look like. California’s education system code is incredibly complex and is sometimes in conflict with itself. They tend to adopt piecemeal changes to the code and that ends up with inconsistent policy. It’s currently not possible for the state to fulfill its own distance-learning tools because of conflicts in the education code.

The other issue is that digital education is still looked at as a gimmick—you know, this is something new that we’re going to stick in the classroom or that’s going to replace the classroom—and we’re beginning to see this as a core component of education and not something that’s extra. This is somewhat different than when people bring up that over the past 100 years every time a new technology is introduced, it is simultaneously lauded as the next step in education and then debunked because it doesn’t change the game. But I think digital education offers a qualitatively different set of potentials that [are] perhaps not appreciated at this point. It’s not just a question of sticking computers in a classroom. The flip side of this is not just what kind of information can be offered to students but what can be done with the information that’s being presented and what students are doing with it. The best example of this is the Gooru learning system

The third thing is a message that we keep coming back to over and over again—that California has to be collecting data, and they have to do it consistently and over time. The state has a poor record of this. It’s simply difficult to remain focused. We’ve had a heck of a time looking at students’ success rates from kindergarten through college. It was not possible to do directly. We literally had to connect disparate datasets and it wasn’t a longitudinal study as much as it was a series of snapshots across time because a longitudinal study is not possible. California tends to start data-collecting initiatives, which get mired down in specifics and budgetary concerns, and then stop.

There are many programs which have been very well intentioned, not just to collect data but programs for teacher training or many digital education programs, that have started for a couple of years and then fizzled away. So if the state wants to maintain a clear vision and develop a coherent agenda on how best to incorporate digital technologies into its education system, we think that it needs to get a handle on the information that would be necessary to make those decisions. And that’s not just about California—there is little data everywhere.

It’s no secret that California is in terrible financial shape, so how does the state take on what seems to be major investments in digital learning? And do you think California has made progress since coming in last place on the Digital Learning Now report in 2011?

A key part of moving forward will be public-private partnerships. This is something that is a critical component for developing sustainable systems. I believe all the states that ranked highly in the Digital Learning Now report are working with public-private partnerships. It’ going to be very challenging for California to take any concrete steps in terms of new programs and infrastructure with the budget the way it is. That’s why the public-private partnerships are going to be so important.

As for whether California has made improvements, that’s difficult to say. There’s a referendum on the ballot for the fall that, if passed, would apparently address at least some of the logistical issues, the policy issues, that are making life more challenging for the spread of digital education. We’re not taking a position on the bill, but that would be seen by many as a positive step for digital learning.

The danger here is that there are two stories about this. There are some proponents of digital education who emphasize the potential cost-savings—the idea behind that being you don’t need as many teachers. You know, you have 50 to 100 students per teacher learning through this resource. I think it would be a mistake to move forward simply on the premise that this will save money by getting rid of teachers—both because it’s not, strictly speaking, true, and also because that approach is going to garner a lot of resistance from the education sector. If people say to teachers that they’re going to be replaced, they’re not going to be happy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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