How do we change policy to support more flexible time and place learning?

Volunteer Moderator Name and Contact Info: Joanne E. Hopper, Ed.D., Director of Education Services, St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency, Marysville, MI <hopper.joanne@sccresa.org> <http://joannehopper.edublogs.org/>

Will posted the following to elaborate on the question:
Here are some sub-questions I am considering as I develop a response to the main question:

First, what do we mean by “flexible time and place?” I’m thinking this could include anything from internships to online courses. What types of policy changes need to be made to support those non-traditional learning environments? Who are the policy makers we need to address? How can we convince those policy makers that changes are necessary? Is it possible to start the process of policy change at the school/district level, or do these changes need to be made on a larger scale—at the state or national level?

Off the top of my head, I imagine that adjustments to standardized testing and graduation/credit requirements would be necessary if we decide to extend learning beyond the traditional school day and beyond our classroom walls.

Introduction
The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) has produced several studies and white papers about online learning. A comprehensive list is available at iNACOL home page. In particular, those that have bearing on this topic include: Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of State Policy and Practice, and Blended Learning: The Convergence of Online and Face-to-Face Education.

According to Watson (2009), author of Blended Learning, "Thirty states and more than half of the school districts in the United States offer online courses and services, and online learning is growing rapidly, at 30% annually" (p. 2). Watson asserts that, while fully online learning programs and enrollments are increasing, future growth will likely focus on blended options (p. 4). In most of the state examples featured in the report, students are required to report to a bricks-and-mortar building for a defined number of face-to-face hours. Some states, including Indiana (p. 10) mandate face-to-face instruction for all charter schools. In reference to state policy decisions impacting online learning opportunities, Watson recommends, "Because it does not make sense to attempt to fit education into pre-set conceptions based on old methods of teaching and learning, state education policies should allow innovation in directions that may not be foreseeable at this time" (p. 14).

A separate iNACOL report, Keeping Pace with Online Learning (2009), substantiates the influence of state policy and funding on online enrollments: "The number of students taking online courses in a state is directly proportional to a combination of policy (whether students have the right to choose an online course) and funding (whether online programs are well-funded or funding follows students who choose online courses or schools) (p. 22).

A series of advocacy projects are also shared on the iNACOL Advocacy page.

Michigan Examples
In Michigan policy changes have been enacted to promote online learning. Documents prepared by the Michigan Department of Education include:
  • Online Learning Guidelines require schools to include an online learning component in the educational experience of each student sometime between 6th and 12th grade. The rationale is stated as follows, "While students informally develop technology skills and gain experience through their media-rich lives, an online learning experience will require them to complete assignments, meet deadlines, learn appropriate online behavior, and effectively collaborate with others in an instructional setting" (p. 1).
  • Online Learning Experience Companion Document setting forth definitions of a quality online learning experience and more.

While Michigan legislation and education policies currently allow for modifications to the traditional seat time requirements on a limited basis. The waivers, granted by the State Superintendent of Instruction to local school districts, are capped at a given enrollment number. Michigan's Seat Time Waivers allow schools to explore flexible time and place models. Participating schools are required to implement the Michigan Merit Curriculum in any program, to assess students, and report results. All Michigan high school juniors, regardless of program, are required to take the Michigan Merit Exam, a key component of which is the ACT.

In a report to the Michigan legislature regarding Public Act 212 of 2008, the Michigan Department of Education addresses cyber school models, defining current barriers. The report offers recommendations to the state legislature that would allow for limited expansion of such schools.

March 10, 2010 MACUL (Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning) Pre-conference celebrated model 21st Century Learning grants in local schools and intermediate school districts across the state. Many flexible learning options were presented. Included was the NotSchool model originated by Inclusion Trust, Essex, U.K. The U.S.A. Michigan model is currently implemented at Westwood Cyber High School in Westwood Community School District, Dearborn Heights, MI. Seat Time Waivers to current Michigan policies for pupil accounting are permitting implementation of this model (see reference above). Flexibility is built into the learning situation at Westwood in many ways. Most significantly, students operate as researchers under the guidance of Teacher Experts and Mentors who guide teens in their learning plan development and completion. Early results indicate that students are thriving in an environment where they take charge of their own learning.

Conclusion
Additional research is necessary to identify the current status of state policy related to flexible learning environments. Evaluation of student success in current flexible and/or online learning environments is a critical, though often missing, element. Perhaps one of the most intriguing metrics would be feedback from students themselves. What do students see as valuable in defining a flexible learning environment? And how would they measure the results of their participation? Clearly, the traditions of the educational landscape and the six-hour day are being challenged. The results of such challenges promise to be exciting.

Resources

Beem, K. (2010). Virtual Classes, Real Policy. The School Administrator, No. 4, Vol. 67. Retrieved online April 27, 2010, from
http://www.aasa.org/SchoolAdministratorArticle.aspx?id=12910