In “Jeb Bush’s Cyber Attack on Public Schools,” published in the November issue of Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer launches a broad attack on online learning. Among other allegations, the article describes online learning as a Republican master plot to destroy public education. Leaving the invective in politics aside, as well as the fact that plenty of Democrats, including the Obama administration, have been quite active in promoting the potential and merits of online–or digital–learning, it’s critical to point out that Mencimer missed several key points.

First, it’s important to clarify why people are supporting online learning: it has significant potential to customize an education for each child so each child can maximize his or her human potential, which will improve student learning and success in public education. Of course, online learning is not a panacea, so it’s important for educators and policymakers to create smart policy that holds online-course providers accountable for outcomes. That’s why a critical recommendation of Digital Learning Now!, which Governor Jeb Bush—who, in particular, receives the brunt of Mencimer’s attack—co-chairs with Governor Bob Wise, is to fund education based on achievement instead of attendance—in other words, providers will be paid in part on performance, so that bad providers will go out of business over time, as the state will evaluate providers based on actual student results.

Importantly, when we advocate for online learning, we aren’t advocating technology for technology’s sake. Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy said it well recently at Governor Bush’s National Summit on Education Reform:

We’re not saying that technology is cool therefore you have to use [it]. What we’re saying [is] that learning at your own pace is cool, differentiated learning is cool, giving information to teachers is cool, that students actually interacting with each other in a classroom is cool. These are our goals and we’re going to use any tools available to us including technology and videos and whatever to enable those things.

Second, even as Mencimer takes to bashing online learning for its apparent primitive technology, it’s clear that she hasn’t done her homework. For starters, she cites examples of online learning from 2004. A hallmark of disruptive innovation theory, however, is that all technology improves faster than our lives change. Just think about how much technology has changed since 2004 when most people were still using small, primitive Nokia phones and video chat on a computer was barely possible. Now, smart phones can do nearly everything a computer can do and many people use Skype to communicate. The same principle of improvement has been at work in online learning. Her examples from 2004 are therefore beyond outdated. Additionally, she talks about how when she gets stuck trying to solve a sample problem on the example website for K12, Inc., she claims that the only help available for a child would be the parent. But what she fails to recognize is that in the public program, there is a certified and paid teacher available to help answer the question. This factual inaccuracy is inexcusable and sloppy.

Of course, some of Mencimer’s examples may show legitimately bad programs, and if so, that’s likely in large part because those states have not adopted the principles of Digital Learning Now! and put in place mechanisms to shut down bad providers; this is the future for which Governors Bush and Wise are advocating, as discussed above. Indeed, Mencimer’s examples serve to bolster their case, as the examples emphasize the importance of refashioning the education system to pay online-course providers based on student outcomes. As Innosight Institute’s Executive Director Michael Horn has written, for-profit education companies are not inherently evil, they will simply respond to demand and incentives. As the online-learning field continues to grow states need to take a smart stance on how to ensure quality instruction from online-course providers. Check out Michael’s piece for example on what states shouldn’t be doing.

Lastly, Mencimer misses one critical trend in the online-learning world, which is that the majority of online learning will most likely happen in blended-learning environments, not in full-time virtual schools, as the article seems to imply. By ignoring this part of the story, Mencimer further misrepresents what online learning is all about. Given that part of her agenda appears to be strengthening public education, she might want to fairly represent one of the critical levers educators are employing to do just that.


  • ccinstitutedev