Some lessons for virtual learning

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There is so much energy in the virtual learning space right now, with a number of products that are maturing and others that are continuing to grow exponentially. The free Khan Academy has provided almost 100 million exercises, now boasts about 3.5 million discrete users, and is growing at a rate of about 300,000 users a month (with the pace of growth increasing). That opens up all kinds of possibilities in terms of partnerships, branding and funding. That product is going worldwide fast, and branching out into many new academic areas.

Getting the promise of digital learning right is going to be a challenge on a number of fronts. One challenge is that the two tons of money going into building and marketing product are not necessarily focused on high-quality academics. The general public has gotten so used to a low-quality public education product that their expectations may not be altogether high. I am willing to bet my best necktie that a look at the American users of Khan Academy, for example, will tell you that most of the users are from wealthier homes. These are homes that are more used to high-quality academics, homes where hard work and self-direction are more the norm, or wealthier homes where kids just are not fitting into the rubric of the traditional school.

That’s still a great thing, because it means that Khan Academy can help address the high-end achievement gap (wealthier underachievers relative to other countries). The data from Khan Academy shows that, with self-paced learning, a lot of kids who would have otherwise been relegated to slow-learner status actually catch up to and outpace the supposed smarty-pants in the class.

Khan Academy is also collecting reams of data on how users interact with the site and how they learn. Sal Khan noted in Boston a couple of weeks ago that the enormous amount of data the Academy collects is astounding. As Khan pithily put it, the Academy probably collects more data in a week than any PhD candidate in education has ever used in his or her dissertation.

Understanding the quality of the choices in the marketplace will have to be informed by more than giddy passion about the promise of virtual learning. A cursory look at the research done on virtual learning suggests that there has been to date more energy than light on the impact of VL on sustained student achievement. Some of that is simply because it is relatively new and that the products are very different. The Florida Virtual School, for example, has a very different public system from other private market products. There are products that work from specific curricular requirements, others that seek only to achieve a specific goal (say, proficiency in French) and so on.

One thing I would urge reformers to do, though, is to avoid filling this as yet undefined area of innovation with particular wish lists. I hear so many people tell me that VL is going to decimate teachers unions, address low- (poor, underachievers) and high-end achievement gaps, fix budget problems, make testing a thing of the past, make learning student-centered (some see this as an end in itself), make students creative and give access to global learning opportunities, cure the common cold and cancer in one fell swoop, and alleviate cavities, hang nails and acne.

We are just at the start of the virtual learning movement, and there is so much promise in the short term regarding access to high-quality content, targeted instruction, peer tutoring and resulting stronger socialization around academics (rather than who’s cool and who’s not). Long term, virtual learning has more muscle to grow organically than other reforms in the past, given that a large group of virtual learning vendors are aiming to meet the needs of the individual market. As a result, VL is not subject to the whims of policymaking (and the politics behind it).

But policy will rear its head. The fault lines around how best to teach kids how to read, conceptual understanding, and what should be in the standards and curriculum are all important topic well into a virtual future.

And politics will come. It is unavoidable. The NY Times was to run an expose by Stephanie Saul, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has spent much of her career at the Times on the pharmaceutical industry and fertility treatments, on the well-known digital learning company K12. Many in the school choice movement saw the article as a likely hatchet job.

All I can say to school reformers who support digital learning is: Such articles and such scrutiny are going to come. It is inevitable and ultimately it is good.

Even if the Edison charter model in the 90s had not come under close scrutiny for business practices and impact on achievement, there would have been articles on charters that failed to live up to their fiduciary responsibility. And the resulting frameworks set up around charter schools have been beneficial to the quality of the schools. The state requirement that edu-entrepreneurs who want to start a charter school in Massachusetts must submit a detailed business plan that is reviewed and must be approved by the state’s charter school office is good for the quality of our charters.

Political shenanigans can come into play, as we saw in Gloucester and also in Brockton recently, but we do have human beings in public office and they sometimes fail to do their duty. That stuff comes out too, and we need to be vigilant. But, over the years, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the rigorous approval and closure processes have given Massachusetts’ charters a level of consistency that is not found across the country.

Once any reform touches the public realm, a higher level of scrutiny is required, because we are talking about tax dollars and the public trust. If reformers embrace virtual technology as holding out the promise “to transform” education (in quotes because it is such a worn phrase in ed circles), they will need to understand that the policy and political battles have to be won. And won on the merits. Once these products move from individual purchases (or in the case of the free Khan Academy, individual users) to the public domain, there will necessarily be the need for accountability.

Already some states have found their own path forward. Florida has chosen to set up a single statewide virtual school, which ensures accountability by only receiving funding on the basis of a successful course completion. But even with such a system, the Florida Virtual School has all kinds of standards and accountability measures to ensure that there is no cheating, that teachers are well-prepared, and that kids across the state have access to their product.

Recent changes allowing new entrants into the Florida public virtual market will challenge the Sunshine State’s model. Other states have taken very different paths. Massachusetts needs to catch up with other states and attempt to craft its own way to do virtual learning. Right now, we aren’t getting it right; in fact, after the 2010 education law allowed for the expansion of virtual learning, the state department of education has promulgated some pretty stupid regulations, setting numerical and geographic requirements on virtual schools.

Massachusetts has a lot going for it, including many lessons learned about what works in its 20 years of education reform. In recent years, we have not been the state all other states wanted to learn from. With virtual learning expanding across the country, can we catch up again provide the kind of thought leadership needed to make sure we and other states get it right?

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.