Digital Learning Council Recommendations Missing Details on Quality

By 12/01/2010

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(This post also appears on The Quick and the Ed.)

This morning, Digital Learning Now, a new advocacy effort led by former Governors Jeb Bush (R-FL) and Bob Wise (D-WV), published 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning, a set of state policy recommendations to spur further growth for not only virtual learning, but also the use of digital and multimedia content (see report). Taken together, the ten recommendations, which advocate for states to eliminate restrictions on student access to virtual education, allow students to choose among multiple learning providers, call for removal of seat-time requirements, and judge schools on results rather than inputs such as class size, would enable all students to access virtual education and end many of the regulatory restraints that stifle the development of innovative options.

But, while the recommendations accurately identify the barriers that constrain virtual education, they are light on details for ensuring that innovation actually leads to more high-quality educational options. They suggest, for example, that states evaluate “the quality of content and courses predominately based on student learning data,” yet provide few details on how to accomplish this difficult task. Likewise, recommendations for “Quality Providers” focus heavily on the removal of barriers to competition, but offer little discussion of how to enact the recommendation for “a strong system of oversight and quality control.” Too often, the recommendations assume that quality will naturally result from regulatory relief.

Virtual education is in a time of rapid growth as school districts, for-profit providers, and nonprofit start-ups all move into the online learning world. But without rigorous oversight, a thousand flowers blooming will also yield a lot of weeds. In many ways, the K-12 virtual learning market called for by the 10 Elements resembles the one that exists in higher education, with many providers and funding that follows students. There, we have seen innovative ideas to make college more accessible and affordable. And, we’ve also seen a lot of abuse, poor performance, and deep-pocketed lobbying to resist oversight — all from institutions that are fully-accredited.

States must not overlook one important sentence in the recommendations : “Providers and programs that are poor performing should have their contracts terminated.” Recent experiences with school districts, charter authorizers, and even higher education demonstrate that shutting down poor programs is extremely difficult. Markets alone will not drive quality and independent entities, with the data, authority, political insulation, and willpower to close schools/programs, are essential.

Overall, as guiding principles, the recommendations make sense. But, as the nation’s charter schooling experience demonstrates, policymakers must fully confront the difficult issue of quality at the same time as they seek new and innovative approaches to schooling. It’s better to think of the 10 Elements as important pre-conditions, but not nearly the complete set of policies needed to ensure high quality learning.

-Bill Tucker

Comment on this article
  • Bruno Behrend says:

    This is a valid critique, but frankly easier to solve than you make out.

    Let’s tackle the most important issue first. Why is it that reforms must be measured against the “perfect” while the existing system is so rife with failure?

    We have millions of kids receiving a substandard education, and most of the rest receiving a barely adequate education at too high a price. Why should reformers be forced to “prove efficacy” before being allowed to compete with a system that is already a proven failure?

    It comes down to this. If we opened the flood gates, and had NO quality control of digital content at all, it would STILL be nearly impossible to under-perform against the existing system, particularly the urban drop-out factories.

    Next, let’s look at how easy it might be to measure quality of digital content.

    Unlike building a school, or even producing a printed textbook, digital content is relatively easy to build measure. Let the market invest in content creation, assuming the investment risk of such production.

    Next, devise a robust, standards-based, testing system to see whether that content works. Put the kid in the room, show them the content, and test for uptake. If you want to test them at later time intervals for retention, that’s not too hard either.

    [In point of fact, making most testing on-line and digital is another angle for massive cost reductions.]

    While I’m oversimplifying a bit, I come back to my main point. We do not need to rigorously test for every angle of efficacy to measure quality content. We merely need to know whether the content and the presentation transmits knowledge. In the early-adopter phase of digital innovation, most digital content will be augmenting classroom or instructor-based education in any event.

    Demanding proof of “quality” up front is like demanding proof that the life boats or the Carpathia are seaworthy while the Titanic is sinking.

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