Reflections from DLAC

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March 22, 2024

Originally posted by: Digital Learning Collaborative, March 21, 2024
Written by: John Watson

Now that we’re a few weeks removed from DLAC, it seems like a good time to reflect on what we saw there. I’ll start with a key caveat, though—at a conference with hundreds of sessions and more than 1700 attendees, any person’s view is going to be incomplete. With that in mind, here are three key takeaways:

1. The digital learning “core” is strong, innovative, critical, and growing.

What do I mean by the core? I’m referring to online schools, hybrid schools, and online courses. These are the schools and programs that are delivering instruction at a distance at least in part. At other education conferences these tend to be overlooked because of a perception that they are serving a small number of students who are unusual in some way, but both of those ideas are increasingly untrue. These schools and programs are growing again, in some cases after post-pandemic dips. They continue to serve students who aren’t finding a great fit in traditional schools, but their student population as a whole is more widespread and mainstream. (More on this below.)

Although many of these schools have been around for a decade, two decades, or even longer, they continue to innovate. They have the flexibility to experiment with new instructional strategies, new technologies, and new ways of communicating with students—and all of these ideas were reflected in DLAC sessions and conversations.

2. There is also a growing set of digital programs adjacent to the core

Pre-pandemic, there were online and hybrid schools and courses, and there was the mainstream school/classroom use of technology. At DLAC2024 we saw a lot more—online and hybrid dual credit, CTE, microschools, and more. The lines have been blurring for a while, and that blurring seems to be accelerating.

One example is independent study in California. Independent study programs are found throughout the state. The large majority of these programs fit our definition of hybrid schools—but very few of these programs would call themselves hybrid schools. They may be delivering online, onsite, and hybrid courses, including dual credit, but the varied modalities aren’t front of mind for them. In this way they are more like a university such as Arizona State, which also has multiple modalities which are in many ways equally available to students.

3. Digital learning activity overseas may leapfrog the US

We made a concerted effort to attract attendees from more countries this year, and we were successful in having 15 countries represented at DLAC. As one would expect, they are highly varied in their approach to digital learning. But listening to participants from overseas, while thinking about some of the policy and other challenges in some US states, has me wondering if the US is about to be overtaken in online learning in a way similar to how some developing countries leapfrogged the US in cellular phone technology. In the case of cell phone technology, a lot of the leapfrogging in other countries was based on not having to deal with a large installed landline base. In the case of education, the “installed base” issue may be more tied to the power of various incumbent forces that don’t support broad change.

Another element of that potential leapfrogging is that most other countries have a larger national government role for education than the US does, with US education policy being more driven at the state level, and with considerable flexibility in many states for decisions to be made at the local level. There are undoubtedly benefits to the US education policy approach, but there is also a clear argument that more control at the state level at least, if not the national level, would benefit the spread of digital learning opportunities.

Did you have a different DLAC takeaway?

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