While K–12 Schools Resist, Digital Learning Disrupts Higher Education

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By 08/14/2013

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FALL 2013 / VOL. 13, NO. 4

“By 2019 about 50 percent of courses will be delivered online,” wrote Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn in a pathbreaking essay in 2008 (“How Do We Transform Our Schools?” features, Summer 2008). Five years later, the authors stand by that prediction (see Forbes.com blog entry, May 30, 2013), though they expect most of the online delivery to be blended into traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. In my view, the estimate, optimistic even when written, now seems out of reach. Although digital learning is making definite advances, it has yet to disrupt secondary education.

When it comes to higher education, however, the prediction is deadly accurate. Hardly a day passes without news of another institution joining the online stampede. As I write this, Coursera, a for-profit firm, announces that it is inviting professors in 10 state university systems—from New York and Colorado to Georgia, Tennessee, and New Mexico—to create online courses for the company to market. The firm, barely a year old, already offers 375 classes taught by some 500 professors from 80 different institutions. Meanwhile, the spread of online learning in K–12 education is halting, uncertain, and unsure, as Michael Horn reports to us in his fascinating survey of the state legislative landscape (“Digital Roundup,” features, Fall 2013).

Purveyors of conventional wisdom place the blame on either students or teachers for the difference between secondary and higher education. College students, they say, can be expected to study on their own, while high school students need to be motivated (or pushed) by classroom teachers. Yet we all have met a plethora of highly motivated 16-year-olds and been appalled by gaggles of slovenly 20-somethings.

Or the problem may lie with their teachers. Many of today’s secondary-school teachers were trained in the predigital era and chose the profession for its dependable salaries and tenure guarantee. Anticipating few rewards, most teachers are reluctant to spend time inquiring into the latest innovations.

As compelling as the latter arguments may be, they apply no less to the college professoriate. When San Jose State University decided to offer for credit an online Harvard-based course in political theory, its professors went ballistic. Fifty of my Harvard colleagues recently signed a letter complaining about the university’s venture into online learning. At a recent seminar, I listened to many of them insist that students could learn only if a professor was at the other end of the log, or at least wandering about the room. Research would suffer if colleges could no longer demand high tuitions. Above all, jobs would be lost.

Despite faculty objections, online learning is hardly missing a step as it marches across the higher education landscape, even while it is being bottled up at the secondary level into just a few cutting-edge charter and district schools. Why?

Surely, the best explanation is that old stalwart: competition breeds innovation, while monopolies stultify it. School districts are monopolies that operate within a state regulatory framework that insists that high school students not take any online courses unless they take all courses online at an all-virtual school that can admit only a limited number of students. Only in a few instances can students choose between course providers. Other digital-learning initiatives are no less burdened with restrictions.

By comparison, higher education looks like the Wild West in the days before marshals and sheriffs. Students pick their college, and federal and state money helps to pay the cost via scholarships, Pell grants, and student loans, creating a free-for-all battle for student applications. Nor does a provider need government approval to enter the higher education space. A college has to be accredited, but entrepreneurs can turn even marginal ones into profitable, inexpensive, largely online institutions of higher education. Other colleges must then cut costs to survive. Higher education is doomed to suffer changes not unlike those that have swept through the print media.

Perhaps then the transformation of the K–12 system will begin.

—Paul E. Peterson

Comment on this article
  • Marie Kunz says:

    As a secondary mathematics teacher I have selected MIT freeware courses for our students who had completed all of our school’s offerings and have done so for five years. Now with EDx those students will experience the best of both worlds. Not all secondary teachers are loathe to try new venues. FYI. I am 56 years old.

  • Jamie Sachs says:

    If post-secondary education is expanding so rapidly into online learning, that should be all the more reason for secondary schools to offer online learning opportunities for their students. By participating in online courses at the high school level, students will gain much needed skills for those ever more prevalent online college courses. Perhaps the stalling of online courses in K-12 schools is not an objection to online learning but an objection to available online options. Maybe it is time to rethink online courses by including more Project Based Learning with high levels of collaboration similar to project work teams that are becoming more common in the work world.

  • Michael Umphrey says:

    Where I work, there’s no real match for the combined lobbying power at the state capital of the teachers union and the school boards association, both of which want to protect school districts as the authorized providers.

    An aroused majority of citizens could change things quite quickly, but that doesn’t seem likely in the near term.

  • David McFee says:

    As a high school and college student, I was inspired by many of my teachers. Some of the most meaningful moments occurred outside of class, during those one-on-one interactions that I needed. My teachers were accessible to me because through my own assessment, I had decided they were not only approachable, but truly interested in my advancement. We should be cautious not to discount instances when students receive attention in a face-to-face setting.
    That being said, technology today offers us the ability to greatly increase instruction time when used wisely. Online courses have their own set of advantages, but blended learning might offer the best of both worlds. As the flipped classroom concept becomes more prevalent in secondary education, smart teachers will find ways to optimize its effectiveness.

  • Mike P. says:

    “Many of today’s secondary-school teachers were trained in the predigital era and chose the profession for its dependable salaries and tenure guarantee. Anticipating few rewards, most teachers are reluctant to spend time inquiring into the latest innovations.”

    Please include evidence to support these claims.

  • Tynia Thomassie says:

    Honestly, it is hard to stomach another article on all that K-12 teachers are “not” doing. Mr. Peterson, you should visit the West Orange public school district in NJ, where Smartboards have virtually replaced the dry whiteboard, where professional development is expected of the district’s teachers, where technology training is offered to staff members for free, where the use of Google Docs, edmodo, and where Socrative cellphone responding is enthusiastically promoted and embraced. Your article is rife with hyperbole and generalities about tenure-driven technophobic teachers, which seem out of step with the technology integration and socially constructive strategies transforming K-12 pedagogy. My two sons are enrolled in colleges consistently listed among the Top 20 universities in the United States. They are still in primarily lecture-structured courses where 1 teacher addresses 100s of students for hours; they are handed blue books for summative essay tests which they must take with a #2 pencil, and they rarely have an opportunity to personally interact with their teachers. Please, spare us the doom and gloom about K-12 education. The college experience, whether via laptop or lecture hall, still revolves around a speaker talking at a group of pupils for a hefty tuition fee. Your characterization of K-12 education seems both uninformed and unenlightened.

  • David McFee says:

    Mr. Peterson…. I invite you to explore the “flipped classrooom” concept. It has gained traction in the public high school that I work at. While any new practice involves assessment and refinement, I can see great promise for this method of teaching as evidenced by students and teachers alike. Both are delighted by the potential to access more content. Not only are students encouraged to take ownership of their education, teachers are given the opportunity to play a new role through constant assessment in the classroom. In addition, classroom time is devoted to actual application of content thus increasing the level of critical thinking. The class becomes “student-centered”. Is this happening at the pace we would like to see? Maybe not, but I believe good teachers will bring it to the forefront of new educational methods.
    If you need evidence that progressive educational change is occurring throughout secondary education, just check out the endless legions of K-12 teachers discussing their teaching activities on Twitter.

  • David McFee says:

    Mr. Peterson… Find more evidence here – http://www.flippedhighschool.com/

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