The debate over digital-learning opportunities continues to heat up in New Jersey. It has now moved beyond just wondering whether full-time virtual learning opportunities have a place in the state to also discussing the role of blended learning, a practice that many districts in the state have actually already adopted in various forms.
With lawsuits flying around and other shenanigans taking place (one lawsuit seeks to close down two schools that it said were full-time virtual schools, when they are in fact blended-learning schools, for example), I was pleased to have the opportunity about a month ago to travel to the Garden State to testify in a hearing before the Joint Committee on Public Schools about online learning.
It was a productive hearing, with good questions about online learning’s potential to transform the state’s education system into a student-centric one, as well as questions about the struggles that online learning has also had in some cases and how the state should think about them. Online learning presents enormous opportunities to transform our education system, but it is certainly no guarantee that it will fulfill the promise.
On the heels of the hearing, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen), the co-chair of the committee, issued a statement, in which she said that she supports blended learning and feels “that there is a definitely a place for technology and online learning in the classroom.”
This was a positive outcome, as it recognizes blended learning’s enormous potential to transform our education system into a student-centric one.
The second part of her statement, however, was more troubling, as it could dangerously limit blended learning’s impact. She said, “My hesitation stems from handing the keys to that method of learning over to non- and for-profit entities. I am not convinced they are the best delivery system for blended learning and, before we take steps down that road, we need to know precisely what we’re getting into.”
This suspicion around for-profits—or outside providers in general—isn’t new. But having outside providers serving public education isn’t new either. The three major textbook companies that have dominant market share in our public schools are for-profit firms, for example.
The reason school districts don’t create their own textbooks is that they realized that there were benefits to a division of labor. Historically it’s been a better investment to buy textbooks, rather than build them from scratch, as districts could benefit from the vast economies of scale that the major textbook companies could realize and that districts—limited by geography in their scale—could not. In addition, districts benefited in some ways from these companies being able to attract capital to invest large sums of money in improving their products and services year over year for the existing educational paradigm.
Those benefits from scale will likely be even more pronounced in the world of digital learning, as digital learning platforms can scale in unprecedented ways. As new providers leverage never-before-seen volumes of data from students around the world, localities will benefit. The reason is that providers will be able to take the data to improve their services and better personalize learning for all students, especially the long tail of students that districts often struggle to serve. Furthermore, there should be massive network effects in digital learning, where the more people use a platform, the better and more useful that platform will become. We’re starting to see this play out with the non-profit Khan Academy, for example.
In addition, for-profit firms bring a few specific advantages that are worth harnessing—namely around their ability to attract capital (something one would think public educators would like given the complaints about there not being enough money in public education), their ability to attract top talent, and their incentives to scale to solve the problem that the customer pays them to solve. When it comes to digital learning specifically, these are important advantages we should leverage in the same way we benefit enormously on balance from companies like Apple and Google—and we don’t each build the products and services they offer from scratch in our local communities.
Of course for-profit firms bring some downsides as well, which tend to be the flip side of their advantages. For example, if the customer—society and the government in the case of public education—pays them based on elements that aren’t aligned with the problems we hope they would solve, they’ll scale against those problems with a host of unintended but unsurprising consequences (witness the challenges with the for-profit universities over the past several years as they were incentivized to expand access to the neglect of quality and price). For-profits aren’t inherently good, and non-profits aren’t inherently good either. And not all for-profits and non-profits are created equally.
New Jersey would be wise to think carefully about how to create the right incentives so that outside providers—as well as local and state-run ones—focus on driving learning and success for each individual student. Today’s education system, with its current policies and regulations, does not incentivize this at all.
The state should move to a competency-based learning system in which it measures the individual growth of each child—and rewards those who move students the farthest. Funding should be tied to this notion of success as well along a broad range of competencies—from academic deeper learning ones to non-cognitive ones and so-called 21st-century skills.
But policymakers shouldn’t thwart innovation and penalize the students of New Jersey by barring outside providers from helping the public educate all students to realize their fullest potential. That would be a mistake and leave out some important partners worth leveraging.