GUEST POST: In Ohio’s Straight A Fund Competition, Digital Learning Moves to the Head of the Class

By Michael Harlow

Note: State activity around digital learning continues to move at a rapid pace. One of the more exciting ideas is Ohio’s Straight A Innovation Fund. We’ve asked a voice on the ground in Ohio to dig into the applications and unpack what this might mean for Digital Learning in Ohio. Michael Harlow specializes in legislative and community relations to advance innovation in education.  Based in Cincinnati, he tweets prolifically and publishes a daily Harlow Report keeping up with many of the latest trends in education. He’s also one of the newest elected members of the School Board for the Northwest Local School District. If you would like to submit a guest blog, please email [email protected].

Strengthening education through innovation is a priority for Ohio. When it passed its biennial operating budget, it placed a priority on funding educational entities with the drive and the courage to try new approaches meeting the needs of students, reducing costs and keeping dollars in the classroom.

At the heart of this commitment was the Straight A Innovation Fund, established to award grants totaling $250,000,000 (previous news on the Ohio budget, including the Straight A Fund, can be found here).  Grants will be awarded on a competitive basis.  October 26 was the deadline for submission.

“Competitive” turned out to be the key word.

After over 1000 letters of interest were submitted, 570 completed proposals were submitted by the deadline.   The applications sought over $867 million in funding, while just $100 million is available this year, with an additional $150 million available next year.   State officials pointed to the large number of applications and dollar requests as an indication that Ohio education leaders have an intense interest in exploring innovation.

Far and away, digital learning was the most numerous feature in the grant applications.  About half of the grant requests, and over 60% of the funds requested, are geared towards implementing or expanding technology in the classroom.  From a $20,000 request to purchase iPads for an elementary school to a nearly $15 million grant consortium spanning 27 school districts across Appalachian Ohio, the Buckeye State’s leaders are clearly excited and hopeful about the potential that digital learning has to improve education and reduce costs.  A complete listing can be found here.

Applications focused on digital learning include partnerships for content delivery with The Ohio State University. A central component of many applications is 1:1 computing with many seeking to deliver college-level instruction to students in underserved parts of Ohio.  A district near central Ohio seeks funding for helping faculty create their own iTextbooks. Several are exploring competency-based learning models. One application establishes an Ohio Blended Learning Consortium with both public schools and community schools coming together to deliver blended learning to middle school students across the state. (Full disclosure: I have provided consulting services on the latter.)

If innovation is going to be truly funded, sifting through these 570 applications, choosing the right applicants and then implementing this correctly will be critical.

Suffice to say, it will be an intense competition.  The seven largest grant applications alone would consume the entire budget.  However, focusing on large-scale grants or on the ones that sound the most futuristic will miss the goals of the fund, which are: to meet the learning needs of its students, reduce the cost of running a school or school district, drive more dollars to the classroom, or some combination thereof.  Grant scorers will first scrutinize the fiscal sustainability of the projects after the grant period.  After that, implementation and feasibility will be important goals for the scorers.

While digital learning was the focus of many of the applicants, other grants sought funding for items such as energy efficient construction upgrades, converting bus fleets to run on natural gas, and changing the culture of the school with programs to combat bullying. Several seek funding for a technological backbone for using data to improve instructional delivery and decision-making.  (These were not included above because it is of limited visible effect in the classroom.)

After earning a D grade on the 2012 Digital Learning Report Card, Ohio is stepping its digital game up.  As the groundwork was laid with the creation of the Ohio Digital Learning Task Force  and following up with  promoting Digital Learning Day activities,  the pieces are coming together and it’s clear Ohio has a bright future in digital education.

Fasten your seat belts, Ohio.  Things are about to get intense.