Notable online learning developments in 2010 not all positive ones

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Jan 6, 2011

As those who have followed the growth of online learning in the United States know, one of the best reports about the online learning field is released annually at iNACOL’s Virtual School Symposium. Titled “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of State-Level Policy and Practice,” John Watson and his team at the Evergreen Education Group give both an update on general trends in the field as well as a look at what is happening with online learning in all 50 states. As such, it offers the most comprehensive review of K-12 online learning in the United States.

An article in eSchool News titled “Growth of online instruction continues, though unevenly,” recently offered a brief overview of the report. It highlighted four of the 10 notable developments that the Keeping Pace report spotlighted, two of which I found to be quite positive and two of which that may appear to be good on the surface but I believe represent some cause for concern. Because of their treatment in an article, I thought it worthwhile commenting on them.

On the positive side, Connecticut recognized that online learning is agnostic to geographic barriers and now allows online teachers to be certified in any state, not just in Connecticut. Lifting restrictions like these that often add unnecessary cost with dubious results for students is a positive move. Connecticut also now requires districts with a dropout rate of 8 percent or higher to have an online credit recovery program. Although I’m never wild about mandates of any sort, this is something districts should have been doing anyway, so the regulation probably will not have terribly detrimental effects save the likely bureaucracy and paperwork.

Alabama passed a law that allows students to earn credit based on mastery of skills as opposed to seat time—which is a critical step forward into escaping the dilemma posed in the Prisoners of Time report and moving to measure the proper end of the student. It’s also an important step forward given that online learning is a mode where time is inherently variable, but seat time policies lock it down such that it cannot realize its potential.

On the questionable side, in Idaho the state Board of Education approved new standards for online teachers. Although many of my friends and colleagues in the online learning field may be pleased with this development that acknowledges the vital role of online learning and the unique skills and training that online teachers must have (points with which I don’t disagree), on the balance I think it moves regulation in the wrong direction. It places too much emphasis on controlling the inputs, rather than tying funding to outcomes and allowing schools and providers to make the best hiring and staffing decisions for their circumstances. Although I suspect that the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, for example, might hire the majority of its teachers only if they possessed these competencies, it might also find that in certain circumstances, to get the best results for students it makes sense to have teachers who possess other competencies and not the 10 that Idaho has required. By tying funding to individual student outcomes, the state would in essence make sure that individual programs did what was best for students, even if that was on occasion counter to conventional wisdom. Fortunately, in a development that Keeping Pace reports on but is not highlighted in the eSchool News article, Idaho did pass a measure that allows students to earn credit by demonstrating subject mastery instead of only being allowed to earn credit through seat time.

Lastly, Wisconsin now requires online teachers to have completed 30 hours of professional development. Although the online teaching standards taught in those hours are based off of those created by iNACOL, this is a far worse policy than Idaho’s, as it focuses on an arbitrary time requirement—not outcomes and competencies. It replicates the worst things about our current system of education and is short-sighted, let alone my concern with focusing on inputs like these rather than keeping the eye on the outcomes we want for students—and letting the rest fall into place.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.