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Digital learning: More states teaching kids at their own level and at their own pace

• Dave Myslinski

Students know the drill: They sit in one class until a bell rings, quickly move to another room and then focus on a different subject until the bell rings once again. This is a great way to ensure the same amount of time is spent on each topic. But it’s a terrible way to ensure students are proficient in those topics before passing them along to subsequent material.

With digital technology, we can update this antiquated system. Teachers will be able to tailor lessons for each student. And students will be able to move on when ready, no longer restricted solely by how long they’ve been sitting in a chair.

Unfortunately, only 10 states currently require that credit must be awarded based on mastery of content and skills, rather than on seat-time. But states are beginning to craft policies allowing for this shift to a student-centered education.

As noted in the 2013 Digital Learning Report Card, New Hampshire passed a law that directed the department to develop a new accountability model which will emphasize content mastery rather than seat time.

The legislation states, “students best learn at their own pace as they master content and skills, [and] allowing them to advance when they demonstrate the desired level of mastery rather than progressing based on a predetermined amount of seat time in a classroom will assure that students will reach college and career readiness.”

Iowa’s task force charged with studying competency-based instruction recently released 13 recommendations for making meaningful progress towards bringing competency-based learning into the classroom. Recommendations include:

  • Allowing students younger than ninth grade to earn credit in any curricular area toward graduation if they complete the requirements for the credit
  • Write model competencies that align with the Iowa Core
  • Continue to investigate and support 21st century technology for every Iowa student
  • Find a suitable vendor for monitoring and reporting learning in a competency-based system
  • Develop a framework for the transformation from the current educational system to a competency-based system and that the Department of Education move forward with the framework developed

Texas also made progress, recognizing subject mastery over time by passing Senate Bill 1365, which allows students in grades 6-12 to earn credit for courses after successfully passing exams selected by the school district board of trustees. In total, 2013 saw 10 states advance policies that reflect the principles competency-based learning.

The key shift to a competency-based system is that students must be measured on mastery and knowledge rather than traditional notions of seat-time and semesters. The student is the center of the learning process, and when they master the material, they should be able to move to the next level. If students need more time, they should not be pushed along to a new lesson before they fully understand each topic.

State education systems need to become more responsive to students’ needs as knowledge becomes more “on demand,” and students are gaining access to some of the highest-quality courses the world has seen for free, thanks to innovation such as MOOCs.

These and other policy advances are highlighted in the 2013 Digital Learning Report Card. Visit to learn more about what states have already accomplished, and what trends are emerging in digital education.

About the author

Dave Myslinski

Dave Myslinski serves as a Communications Specialist for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and was the State Policy Director for Digital Learning Now, focusing on digital education policies across all 50 states. Prior to joining the Foundation, he served as the Education Task Force Director at the American Legislative Exchange Council, where he focused on digital learning, K-12 education reform, and higher education policies on the state level. He is a coauthor of the Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform for ALEC, and currently serves on its Education Task Force Executive Committee and is a Vice-Chair of the Digital Learning Subcommittee. Dave has previously worked on state policies relating to health care and telecommunications. He is a graduate of Rutgers University. Contact Dave at