(“Diminishing Ignorance Will Pave Way for Digital Learning Innovation” by Diana Moore was originally published on Getting Smart.)

Washington state: the birthplace of Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, Dave Matthews, Rainn Wilson, and more. Lesser known is the fact that the Evergreen State is also home to more than 40 different digital learning programs. In fact, for more than 15 years online public school programs have been active and growing, providing increased access to excellence and options for Washington’s kids.

As an education analyst, it’s been my privilege to travel the state looking for stories of lives that have been changed by digital learning. They’re not hard to find. From dropout recovery to academically advanced, from chronically ill to cognitively impaired, the stories pour in.

Why? What makes the difference? Because after decades of cramming kids into a uniform mold and expecting them to adjust—and come out educated—leaders and visionaries have harnessed the power of technology to design a rigorous academic program around the needs of individual students.

Furthermore, with digital learning, geography, income, health, employment, disability, family, and learning level—these variables no longer dictate a student’s ability to access an excellent public education.

With more than a decade of experience, Washington is ahead of the curve. Our online programs are held to high standards of accountability, students can access any approved online provider—regardless of location, and some of the unnecessary regulations that were inherited from traditional schools have begun to fade away.

But there is still a very real threat to digital learning and the opportunities it can open up for kids. The threat? Ignorance.

A doctor with incomplete information can hurt a patient. A pilot with a faulty map can get pretty darned lost. A mechanic with the wrong manual can ruin a perfectly good machine—while trying to repair it. Similarly, a legislator who lacks a clear understanding of digital learning can deprive thousands of kids of life-changing learning opportunities.

In spite of all the good things happening with digital learning in Washington, many legislators have yet to fully grasp the remarkable potential it holds. And we’ve seen the consequences.

For the past two legislative sessions, online learning has been on the chopping block. In 2010, legislators proposed eliminating funding for K-6 online learning programs. Fortunately, families responded en masse and legislators listened, finding the necessary savings elsewhere.

In 2011, we weren’t so lucky.

Again faced with a budget deficit, legislators proposed a 10-20 percent cut to alternative learning experience programs, which includes online learning. In spite of countless appeals from families, they went through with this cut.

There’s no denying cuts were necessary. But if legislators really understood digital learning, they would have realized their decision would hurt kids—and not save money.

Ignorance is a formidable foe. And this year, we’re taking it on. Ryan Fox, an autistic student from rural Washington –with a passion for music—found the right fit in online learning. Ryan told us, “When our elected officials need to vote on new things, it’s important to educate them so they don’t make uninformed decisions. My mom says, good people usually only make bad decisions when they don’t have information, so we should just make sure that they have it.”

For legislators to enact good policies, they need all the facts. That’s why this year the iLearn Project is partnering with groups like Digital Learning Now and Getting Smart to give Washington’s policymakers a vision for the importance and potential of online learning and the tools to make it a priority.

On the evening of January 11, 2012, we are hosting the Washington Online Learning Symposium for state policymakers. Delivering the keynote speech is national expert and former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, who currently serves as President of the Alliance for Excellent Education and co-chairman of Digital Learning Now!

The saying “knowledge is power” has suffered from overuse, but it’s still true. Next week at the Washington Online Learning Symposium, we will empower policymakers with the knowledge they need to make Ryan’s experience true for every student:

“I love online learning!  It has changed my life.  I really believe that in the future everyone will learn this way!  We will all be able to learn from the very smartest people on Earth, and we will do it at our own pace every day.  Our abilities will matter more than our disabilities.”


[photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center]