At the end of July, the Fordham Institute launched an important new series to examine how to create healthy policy for the emergent and disruptive force of digital learning that is sweeping through our education system (full disclosure: Early on, I helped by brainstorming possible topics to explore). The first released paper, by AEI’s Rick Hess, tackles the question of quality as outlined in its title: “Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches.”

Unsurprisingly, Hess treats the reader to a thought-provoking discussion of the possible ways to regulate quality and raises serious issues that beg the question of whether our political system will be able to strike the right balance and use online learning to transform the nation’s education system into a student-centric one of high quality. Hess treats seriously the different tradeoffs and recognizes their imperfections. In particular, for those who are not well versed in this topic, Hess grounds the conversation in the possibilities of where technology will go in the future and in a history of regulation, distance learning, and technology that is useful to understand and heed.

The piece, in classic Hess fashion, has some delightful nuggets, including: “While today’s skeptics fret about online instruction, it was once books and the printing press that were feared by educators, who agonized that students would learn the wrong things if left to read on their own. In the seventeenth century, Sir Robert L’Estrange (once a member of the English Parliament and translator of Aesop’s fables) wondered ‘whether more mischief than advantages were not occasion’d to the Christian world by the invention of typography.’ Newness and unfamiliarity create a high bar to clear when assuring parents and the public that technology-infused learning (whether it involves books or iPads) is not a ‘risky’ departure from what they have known.”

Of course, despite the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” the new technology did spark change, although not always in the ways that people expected.

As Hess contemplates how we might shape this latest technology, he suggests three framing mechanisms by which one can judge quality: input regulation, outcome-based accountability, and market-based quality control. Readers of our own work will note the overlap with my recent piece with Innosight Institute Research Fellow Katherine Mackey, “Moving from inputs to outputs to outcomes: The future of education policy,” but Hess treats the reader to a more academic consideration of the benefits and shortfalls of each approach—and ultimately concludes that a balanced one that takes into account the good of each will be the best way forward.

One thing that emerges from this work is that, in places where there is not widespread agreement about what those outcomes should be or how to measure them, input-based regulation will still have a role to play. As such, Hess has (perhaps unknowingly) refined my past encouragement to move beyond input regulations. Although this may still be sound advice, perhaps it’s not that all input-based regulations are “bad,” given where we are today, but instead that many of the familiar and conventional ones—seat time, for example—that we have historically used to govern our system are truly outdated and limiting in a world powered by digital learning.

There will also be questions with Hess’s piece, of course.

Hess explains in detail the challenge with today’s accountability mechanisms in a world of digital learning, when schooling becomes unbundled such that children will be served by providers from almost anywhere in new and customized ways. The permutations and computations appear mind-boggling.

And yet, perhaps this complicates the picture too much. If we really, truly held schools accountable for results in exchange for public dollars and gave them significant freedom around their inputs, one wonders if they wouldn’t have the incentive to reach out for different solutions and providers to educate the children they serve. And wouldn’t they, in turn, have all the incentive to monitor and reward those providers that were successful in a way that was more fluid—changing with advances in technologies and measurement techniques—than a complicated government accountability system would be? Merit badges and other systems that Hess discusses to create a competency-based system centered around outcomes might be more successful in this scenario (although I still contend that these are more likely to gain adoption first in the realm of post-secondary and informal education, as they align with the various real needs of one of the end consumers of the nation’s education system—employers).

Or has the experience with supplemental education service (SES) providers from No Child Left Behind taught us that although in theory this might be true, realistically we won’t get to that ideal accountability framework any time soon, which means that schools won’t follow the above behavior? If so, we will have to force public dollars to follow students down to any course or module level—and figure out a way to make these different providers accountable, as it probably would be easier to put a true outcomes-based framework on these emergent and still-pliable disruptive innovations than to impose them on the rigid old system.

And here, Hess could have done a better job of grounding his discussion in the reality of how the country regulates this emerging disruption today. Unfortunately his analysis largely ignores this, but it would help the reader understand even better the promises and perils of each approach, as well as what is and what is not realistic. Without a discussion of Texas’s decision to regulate digital learning based on inputs—including the logjam and administrative burden it has created in approving providers and online courses for the Texas Virtual School Network—or a profile of successful regulation by the Florida Virtual School based on its outputs for nearly a decade, the paper misses a bigger opportunity to break new ground based on where we have been.

Furthermore, there is a legitimate question around whether Hess’s delineation between an outcomes-based system on the one hand and a market-based system on the other—while steeped in the usual rhetoric reformers use—would be better framed as an outcomes-based system versus a student and parent choice system. The reason is that an outcomes-based system would in fact also create a robust market for different products and services along the criteria that the true customer—the public and the government, which is after all the payer—said was important. Even today, public education exists within market mechanisms—they just happen to be stilted and tired input-based ones. A student and parent choice system is also a market-based one, but here, as Hess points out, the criteria—or the “job to be done” that students and parents have—might not quite match up to what the public customer thinks it should be, and there are both advantages and disadvantages to that. What became clear to me through reading this is that while inputs create homogenization in the process and the “how,” outcomes create another kind of homogenization—of the “what”—even as they are quite liberating on the “how.” A market-based system where students and parents act as true consumers, however, protects against both potentially—an interesting advantage if we consider with some humility that we may not always know which outcomes are and which are not important in preparing students to lead productive and fruitful lives.

More likely though—and semantics aside—as Hess points out, the right answer is likely in a combination of all of these approaches, and his ultimate proposal is a thoughtful one for how to navigate the future of digital learning, while being honest about the public policy questions that surround how to get there and how to continually strike the right balance.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.