The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Lisa Gillis
Lisa Gillis (courtesy of Lisa Gillis)

At The Hechinger Report, we’re trying to learn—and share—as much as possible about the ways digital learning is changing American schools. We’ve recently conducted Q&As with former Governor of West Virgina Bob Wise and video game writer and designer-turned-college-professor Lee Sheldon. This week we spoke to Lisa Gillis, president of Integrated Educational Strategies, a nonprofit that helps schools and districts develop digital solutions to improving student learning. Gillis—who is at the forefront of blended learning, which combines face-to-face instruction with online learning tools—spoke with us about how digital platforms are being put in place around the country.

Q: What states are ahead in the digital movement, and what are they doing?
A: Some states are really taking a lead on this—Utah would be one, Idaho would be another. Indiana is another up-and-coming star in this. And what they’re doing is taking a holistic approach and looking at it from the policy all the way down. The first thing you need to do is identify what the barriers are to full implementation in the classroom that goes from the local, state and even national level. So policy review and redesign of policies is the number-one step. These states have looked at that, and legislation has been passed that allows for more digital learning within the classrooms themselves and more support in funding professional development, and it’s really removed some of the barriers. When we did the Digital Learning Now report, one of the things we identified were the top 10 barriers. And [they included] funding, infrastructure development, access for all kids. …  Does every student in the state actually have the access to online learning? Do they have the infrastructure? The technology? Do they have the teachers? And if not, then what can we do to get there? … Some states we’re seeing impose regulations that require online learning for graduation. Michigan has that requirement as part of their Children First legislation that was proposed by the superintendent in Idaho. There are four or five states that require either a completion of a course or an “online experience” as part of the high-school curriculum to graduate. So that is a growing trend, too. Not only are we looking at different modalities—will it be in the site-based traditional system, a charter system, an alternative or a full-time virtual school—but how do all those work and how do they get funded?

For the states that are ahead of the game, how are they doing? Is there concrete implementation happening? If so, what does that look like?

I don’t think any of the states are there yet. I think this is just a discussion that’s been brought to the forefront in the last 24 months. States are beginning to look at their legislative cycles and the policies and all of the environment of education within that state. It’s somewhat of a slow-moving process. But it is being driven by the students themselves, by the parents, and people within the education fabric that really want to see this change made. A group called Project Tomorrow gave a 2011 congressional briefing on a recent report. It talks about how we’re seeing an increase in support for online textbooks and digital integration within the classroom, and says that nearly 30 percent of high-school students have experienced some type of online learning. That’s huge! We’re seeing a rapid change that’s being driven by all segments. And frankly, a lot of times it’s the adults who are trying to figure out how to adapt to this change. We know that the kids are ‘digital natives.’ We know that this is their native language. And if you think about it … what we’re doing now in our current system is requiring those kids to leave their native language at the door and come into the classroom and learn in a way that is very different from how they’ve been raised.

This begs the question of the digital divide. How can a movement like this reach the portion of the population who can’t afford to have a computer or digital device at home, or who attend schools that aren’t equipped with the proper technology?

That was one of the things that we studied in the Digital Learning Council. That goes back to that point of access. That is one of the ways that schools can actually provide this kind of infrastructure. I was working recently with a school in Detroit and a lot of the kids didn’t have computers at home but the school was able to provide them and the kids could learn within the site-based environment itself. There are lots of community services like public libraries that provide these kinds of services for kids. And that’s the whole point—it has to be fair, and it has to be equal access for all. So how do we provide that is the question. There’s a lot of School Improvement Grants and others that have technological inspirations and they’re [handing out] iPads or other technical devices that kids can check out and take home at night. Of course, there are a lot of protocol issues tied to that and folks are working through those as we go down this path. But it’s a great way of bringing kids into the digital age.

Why is it so important to include a digital platform in education?

It’s important because we need to prepare our kids for the twenty-first century global marketplace. It’s no longer that you’re going to graduate from high school and work at the local hardware store. The walls have been broken down and kids have to understand now how their colleagues in China and India act and behave and learn on the Internet. So those kids who do not graduate, who do not have the ability to learn, research and communicate within the digital-learning atmosphere, they’re going to be at a disadvantage when they enter the workplace. And it doesn’t matter what job you do. Across our whole society, digital tools are integrated—except for in the classroom. We have to bridge this disconnect between what kids are experiencing on a day-by-day basis outside of the classroom with the learning that’s going on inside the classroom.

You brought up that it’s often the adults who need to catch up. Could you talk about that from the teacher preparation side? What needs to happen to prepare teachers who can better work with digital natives?

Interesting point. That’s exactly what my nonprofit, Integrated Educational Strategies, does. We have a whole blended redesign process. It’s a blueprint that we use with schools. So schools say, ‘We want to do blended learning. How do we do it?’ and our team are one of the most experienced blended learning education teams in the United States. There has to be a strategic plan that gets put in place and part of that is, ‘Who are the students you want to reach? What are their needs? What are the needs of the teacher? What desire does the teacher have to do this? And what kind of support can we give that teacher so they really can re-architect their classroom to allow for personalized instruction that would lead to individualized learning?’ And that is the power of the Internet.

… If we say, ‘Let me help you with a learning management system that will give you a daily read out of how all your 30 kids did.’ You’ll see that Nick tried to take that assessment four times and the highest he got was a 60 percent. And then you can click on something else and see the exact questions that you missed … The amount of insight that we can gather by using these digital tools is incredible. And we can really help the teacher: a) make her job easier; b) give her more information, more data on how to inform her instruction; and c) we can easily identify kids who are falling behind immediately so that literally no child is left behind.

Are there any concrete, convincing examples of digital initiatives improving education anywhere in the country?

There are a couple. First, we’re not talking about the tool itself—we’ve had computers in the classroom for 20 or 25 years—we’re talking about how we’re going to use the tool to increase learning. … One example: the U.S. Department of Education did a meta-analysis and when we talk about blended instruction, they have reported that in their study, the students who participated in blended learning actually outperformed either their peers who were in full-time online or full-time face to face [classes]. So that’s a big one. Another report is “The Rise of the K-12 Blended Learning” by the Innosight Institute. They identified six models of blended learning and then highlighted 30 sites. Our site is in it for a project we did in northern California.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

5 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Finally I’ve found a website with great information about the digital direction of education. I’m at the very bottom of my community trying to educate the public about alternatives in our current public education system. I’ve written articles, appeared on debates about (not) raising taxes for public schools, and read everything I can get my hands on re public education and alternatives. There are KIPP, Charter and other “public schools” out there that have successful results but we’re falling so far behind in the world I wonder if we’ll ever catch up. How can we, with music, art, “green” and “sustainable” studies compete with Asian students who go to school 10 hours a day and study math, science, reading and writing? While we continue to perpetuate, reward, and revel in mediocrity. With teachers not in the digital age, how will we get them educationally “online”? Maybe it’s something that has to begin with teacher training, in an alternative college environment. Currently our colleges don’t seem to be producing any forward thinking, “blended” teachers.

    Thank you for the great site. Has there been any current info updates on the Rubber Rooms in NYC? I can’t seem to find anything although someone recently told me that they exist in LA, too. Why am I not surprised?

  2. Hi, Joyce —

    The so-called Rubber Rooms are being phased out in NYC, although not as quickly as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others would like. The New York Times and GothamSchools ( regularly cover the situation with Rubber Rooms in NYC. (In short, the union and the mayor reached a deal in April 2010 to close them down and speed up the arbitration hearings for those in Rubber Rooms, but my understanding is that they still kinda exist — just with significantly fewer teachers in them than before.)

  3. Excellent presentation from Ms. Gillis. Her approach to “blended learning” is exactly what the Educational Systems across the Country need. She further identifies the need for the last two generations of parents to acquire their High School Diplomas and/or G.E.D.’s. along side their children. Why not have mom or dad in the same virtual classroom with their child? I am confident that Ms. Gillis will continue to scream from the educational mountain tops.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *