Online learning: The train is leaving the station

Will you get on or not?? This is the question posed by this morning's page one New York Times story by Trip Gabriel:? More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality.? Gabriel says that some 200,000 kids now attend online schools fulltime and over a million take at least one online course, a nearly 50 percent increase in just three years.

The question of quality is, indeed, the issue that educators and policymakers should be focused on here. And Gabriel is off to a promising start with an anecdote about an online student who went to Wikipedia to answer a question about social Darwinism for an English class. ?He copied the language, spell-checked it and e-mailed it to his teacher,? reports Gabriel.

That kind of quality control challenge is only the tip of the iceberg. ?Gabriel leads his story describing this same student's study of Jack London, ?in a high school classroom packed with computers.? The kid scans a ?brief biography? of London and that's it:

But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of Call of the Wild or To Build a Fire.

Unfortunately, this is where Mr. Gabriel falls into the weeds ? and he never gets out. Rather, he falls in just after these promising anecdotes: curriculum is not mentioned again in the story.? In fact, I would bet Mr. Gabriel good money that generations of English students in thousands of schools never even saw a copy of Call of the Wild, let alone tattered it. But how would we know? Few states have a common curriculum in English, much less a mandated, or even suggested, reading list. And this little problem predated online learning.??

Indeed, the battle over online learning, which Gabriel describes well, has very little to do with the knowledge deficit that is the?real national nightmare (and I hope Rick Hess is wrong about the common core movement ?running off the tracks?).

I wish Gabriel had attended the recent conference about online learning at Columbia University, Teachers College, sponsored by the Hechinger Institute and the MacArthur Foundation ? or read my report on it, The Digital Divide and the Knowledge Deficit.? Or, please see my report on another great conference, sponsored by the Education Writers Association and the Carnegie Corporation, The ?Great? Teacher Trap, or my Habits of Mindlessness, or, from yesterday, my essay at Huffington Post, March Madness and the Common Curriculum. The thread of a theme in all those reports is this: curriculum is ?the backbone? of education, as Judy Zimny of ASCD put it, whether you're in a digital classroom or on a desert island.***

One of my favorite comments from the Hechinger powwow was that of Meg Campbell, founder of Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston, who was asked about her school's relationship to computers. ?Sure we use them,? she said, ?but when I asked an IT friend of mine whether we should have a separate computer room, he replied, `Did schools ever have pencil rooms?'??

The point, so to speak, should be clear, but as Gabriel's story unfortunately shows, by omission, it is?not.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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***Also, there's a wonderful new essay on the subject from Paul Peterson at Education Next:? A Pedagogical Divide in the World of Digital Learning Concludes Peterson, ?Digital learning is coming, but the battle over its form and content is just beginning.?

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