There’s nothing intrinsically political about digital learning. It’s not a right-wing plot to co-opt education policy, nor a ploy to destroy the teacher unions. And it shouldn’t become a conservative clarion call or liberal punching bag. Digital learning’s potential will be squandered by both sides and for all students if we allow it to be caught between partisan ideologies.
Contrary to criticisms from the Left, digital learning isn't a Trojan Horse for union-busters.
Photo by Frank Kovalchek.
Yet that is exactly what we’re doing today. Left-leaning pundits (including the gang at the National Education Policy Center) distance themselves from digital learning—decrying it a Trojan Horse for union-busters, little more than a ruse to kill organized labor and replace teachers with droids. They further vilify online learning as a mechanism to privatize K-12 education, citing Kaplan’s staggering non-completion and loan-default rates and the shaky academic-success rate of schools under K12’s watch (glossing over great examples of well-run for-profit online programs like Connections Academy). They feed on many people’s fear of the unknown.
For their part, right-leaning policy types have begun to shoehorn digital education into their own agendas—narrowly and blindly heralding the importance of privatization in the online sphere. They tout the efficacy of these selfsame for-profit
Digital learning is more than the latest addition to education reformers’ to-do lists, filed along with teacher evaluations, charter schools, tenure reform, academic standards, and the like. It’s fundamentally different: For digital learning to fulfill its enormous potential, a wholesale reshaping of the reform agenda itself is required, particularly in the realms of school finance and governance. But just as online education needs those reforms if it is to flourish, so does major education reform need digital learning, which can provide valuable solutions to some of the greatest challenges in this territory—beginning with the basic obsolescence of public education’s familiar delivery system.
Today, American education has the potential to be rebooted and accelerated by digital learning. Indeed, truly boosting student achievement—as well as individualizing instruction and creating high-quality options for children and families among, within, and beyond schools—will depend to a considerable extent on how deftly we exploit this potential, both in its pure form (full-time online instruction) and in various “blended” combinations of digital and flesh-and-blood instruction.
Serious obstacles block the road to realizing digital learning's potential.
Photo by Brad Folkens
Making the most of these remarkable opportunities, however, hinges on our willingness—and capacity—to alter a host of ingrained practices. Fordham’s new volume, Education Reform for the Digital Era, offers a
Guest blogger Eleanor Laurans, a senior principal at The Parthenon Group, co-authored "The Costs of Online Learning," a chapter in Fordham's new volume, Education Reform for the Digital Era.
“Online learning is a cheaper way to educate my kids? That’s great—where do we sign up?!”
I don’t know many parents who would utter such a remark—do you?
Our team’s research for our recent chapter of the Fordham book, Education Reform for the Digital Era, did in fact demonstrate that online learning can be less expensive—sometimes significantly less expensive—than traditional bricks-and-mortar schools. This is an important and exciting finding, as many schools today are striving to figure out ways to navigate budget crises. But it would be a mistake to focus solely on cost as the field of digital learning evolves. Of course there are cheaper ways to educate our kids. The critical question is, Can online learning be less expensive and better for students?
We don't know if online learning works. We hope it does. Technology has certainly been integrated into almost every other sector of our economy, so why not education? Our colleagues in higher education have certainly made progress integrating online learning, with a third of current postsecondary students taking at least one online course.
Guest blogger John E. Chubb is interim CEO of Education Sector and author of "Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning," a chapter in Fordham's new volume, Education Reform for the Digital Era.
Back in the day, a prominent education reformer asked me to send him a fax rather than an email. Asked why, he replied, only half jokingly, “if God had wanted us to use email he would not have invented the fax machine!” Reflecting on the remark I always chuckle, but then think: how prophetic. Technology has come slowly to K-12 education. Our schools and classrooms are not all that different from those of fifty years ago or longer. While most every industry has adopted new information technologies and often been transformed in the process, schools really have not.
Some of the pace must be attributed to the perspective unwittingly expressed by my reformer friend. Schools are the way they are for good reason. Students require the attention of caring adults. Students are precious and vulnerable and not to be put at risk by unproven innovations. Schools, classrooms, and teachers perform roles that have evolved over centuries. God, if you will, would not have given us schools in their current form were there
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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