Quality control in K-12 digital learning
Virtual schooling’s greatest power is that it creates the opportunity to reconsider what is feasible in K-12 education. Digital learning makes it possible to deliver expertise over great distances, permits instructors to specialize, allows schools to use staff in more targeted and cost-effective ways, and customizes the scope, sequence, and pacing of curriculum and instruction for individual children. These add up to facilitating the delivery of high-quality, high-impact instruction. But because it destandardizes and decentralizes educational delivery, digital education is far harder to bring under the yoke of the quality-control systems and metrics that have been put in place for traditional school structures.
To realize the potential gains in cost efficiency, customization, instructional quality, pupil engagement, and—ultimately—student learning that the digital age makes possible will require policymakers and practitioners to find new ways to monitor and police the quality of what’s being delivered, and learned. Yet absent the familiar panoply of credentials, staffing ratios, instructional hours, Carnegie units, and school days that now provide tangible assurance that a given school is “real” and legitimate, digital learning will struggle with finding acceptance—and could be bent to the advantage of those who don’t place educational achievement at the top of their priorities.
Unfortunately, it is difficult today even to visualize, much less to craft, brand-new quality-control systems that adapt perfectly to the seismic shift that digital learning represents. The best that policymakers can do at present is to select among—or combine—three basic approaches, each with its own significant limitations:
- Input and process regulation;
- Outcome-based accountability; and
- Market-based quality control.
These are not mutually exclusive options, but together they comprise the basic menu of choices for policing digital learning (or any other public function). The difficulty is that these approaches were devised for assessing conventional institutions, not the more fluid networks of providers and learners created by digital instruction. In the digital world—where new tools and technologies offer dramatic opportunities to rethink teaching and learning by disassembling a school, classroom, or course into its component parts, then delivering instruction in more customized ways—these quality-control approaches will no longer be a comfortable fit for providers. Any given approach to regulating inputs, basing accountability on outcomes, or trusting markets brings risks, imperfections, and unintended consequences. Though these negatives cannot be erased, the alternative—no quality control at all—is far worse. So we’re well advised to acknowledge the problems with available tools and mechanisms and then do our best to monitor, minimize, and combat them.
The first step is to create a relatively uncomplicated vendor-approval process that ensures that minimal fiduciary and academic standards are being met. Providers should have to document to a designated public entity that their books are clean and to report basic metrics for services provided. For those providers that offer certain categories of services—especially the kind that directly impact student achievement—it’s reasonable to have a state review process that features some kind of authorization and renewal.
Second, as providers deliver their wares—and families choose among and students engage with them—it is essential that some entity collect various kinds of data on performance. That’s apt to be a state responsibility but could easily be delegated to any number of third-party monitors. But whether a state agency acts directly or relies on others, a wide array of data needs to be collected, gains measured and analyzed, and findings made public in transparent fashion. Just as important is to gather and disseminate information on consumer satisfaction and expert reviews of programs and providers.
Third, families need to acquire a vested interest in the cost-effectiveness of their new opportunities by being given control over some discrete portion of spending. This step is essential if parents are to approach schooling as more than a unitary service and to start thinking about the quality of particular services, and if education officials are to enjoy the encouragement and support they need to revisit and change deep-seated routines.
All three are needed, in various combinations. But don’t expect perfection. Each possible combination eases some concerns while posing new ones. Hence, given our scant experience with digital provision, it seems prudent to avoid sweeping national policies or requirements, at least for now.
The challenges involved in effecting these shifts are both familiar and new. In a sense, they are essentially the same challenges—to be addressed by the same tools—that educators and policymakers have wrestled with for decades. But in their current incarnation, they can be met only with a degree of granularity, agility, and precision that is new to the world of K–12 schooling.
A formidable task? Surely; because it is one that will ultimately determine whether the advent of digital learning revolutionizes American education or becomes just another layer of slate strapped to the roof of the nineteenth-century schoolhouse.
|Click to listen to commentary on Rick's new paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast|
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