Entrepreneurs are working feverishly to change the labor model to allow teachers to work with students on demand, incorporate gaming techniques to improve student motivation, and create adaptive learning engines that can do for learning what Amazon has done for shopping—tailor it to the learner’s preferences. Some of these innovations will work, and others won’t, which is part of innovation. But eventually, online learning will transform the way we learn—even if we can’t say exactly how today.
The second strand the media has largely missed is the role of policy and regulations in shaping how online learning will evolve in the public sphere.
Although many point to online learning’s inherent ability to personalize and bolster learning, when it comes to publicly funded education, policies and regulations help create the environment that determines what types of online learning will and won’t succeed.
Today’s public education system isn’t largely built to reward the services that help different students learn best. Colorado provides one ugly example.
The state historically has paid a school all of its funds on a “count day” in October, based on the number of students enrolled on that day. If students leave afterward, the original school keeps the funds. If students enroll elsewhere, the new school receives no funds. This incentivizes providers to enroll students, but there are few incentives in place to focus on what happens after that.
As full-time virtual schools have emerged in the state, according to news reports, many seem to have done exactly what their incentives encourage them to do. The ending hasn’t been pretty for students, as a great number of them allegedly leave soon after the count day and enroll back in district schools if they enroll elsewhere at all.
Does this mean that online learning is bad? No. The real story should be on the policy environment that encourages this. In contrast, in Florida, the statewide online school only receives funds when students successfully complete a course. The outcomes have been far better for students.
Missing from the media’s coverage of online learning is how policy makers have yet to seize the opportunity it presents to transition from an education system that rewards compliance around such things as the minutes students sit in seats and antiquated teacher certification rules to one that thoughtfully rewards student outcomes through performance-based funding, multiple options for students, and valid independent assessments of learning—and explores the bumps in the road along the way.
Even as online learning’s growth may be inexorable, there are still large and unanswered questions over how it will transform our education system. Thoughtful reporting on how different policies can channel it toward different ends and what ends would be most productive are the stories that we need.
Michael B. Horn is the co-founder and executive director of the education practice of Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in the social sector. He is also the author of several publications and articles, including the book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.
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