Will Public Schools Co-opt Digital Education?

When I went to a meeting last fall about the new virtual school in our county, I publicly praised the local school superintendent for embracing digital education.

I should have held my tongue.

Or so at least says a new report written by Michael Horn and Heather Clayton Staker of the Innosight Institute. The report, “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning,” catalogs the exponential growth in the number of U.S. students taking at least one course online – from roughly 45,000 in 2000 to three million K-12 students by 2009.

In addition, the report describes the incredible potential that digital education promises for America’s future. “Online learning has the potential to transform America’s education system by serving as the backbone of a system that offers more personalized learning approaches for all students,” write Horn and Staker.

So, why should I have held my tongue?

Because the report also warns that much of the promise of digital education could be thwarted if public school systems seek to squeeze new technologies into old frameworks.

“There is a significant risk that the existing education system will co-opt online learning as it blends it into its current flawed model–and just as is the case now, too few students will receive an excellent education,” Horn and Staker write.

And how exactly might this “co-opting” occur? By school districts adopting policies like the one our new county virtual school has adopted – that all virtual classes must fit within the existing school calendar.

Now, at first blush, this may not seem like a big deal. If the rest of a student’s courses are following the traditional school calendar, why shouldn’t the virtual school courses do the same – especially since most online students are “hybrid learners” who spend part of their school day in the traditional classroom?

Horn says doing this turns one of the great advantages of digital learning on its head. As he explained in a recent interview with eSchool News, our traditional school system “measures seat time and moves students along when they hit certain dates on a calendar.” In this system, “time is fixed, and the learning is variable.”

By contrast, digital education allows us to “measure learning and move individual students along to new concepts as they master previous ones,” Horn says. With online education, learning becomes fixed, but the time it takes different students to achieve mastery of the content is variable.

The big danger with digital education, says Horn, is that schools will take a “disruptive innovation” that can help us build a new system adaptable to the individual needs of each student and will force it instead to work within the traditional one-size-fits-all paradigm.

Or, to put it in terms applicable to our county, the big danger is that school systems will take courses that could be started and completed at any point in the 12-month calendar and force them to start and finish at the same points that the traditional nine-month school calendar classes start and finish. (Incidentally, the widely-acclaimed Florida Virtual School offers its classes throughout the 12-month calendar, which is especially helpful to students who need credit recovery, and to those who want to take a heavier load during certain times of the year in order to facilitate participation in sports and other extracurricular activities at other times in the year.)

To protect digital education from being “co-opted,” the report calls for policy makers to encourage innovation by “creating zones with increased autonomy.” It urges policy makers to “hold providers accountable for results so that the adoption of online learning leads to radically better outcomes for students.” And it admits that blended learning options can be good or bad, just as hybrid cars can run well or poorly.

“Some programs save money; others are more expensive,” Horn and Staker write. “Some produce stellar results; others do not.”

Still, Horn and Staker say that digital education has great promise. It allows for a fundamental redesign of the educational model, creating a more personalized pedagogy that permits each student to work at his or her own pace to achieve academic success.

William Mattox is a resident fellow at The James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Florida.