Online Yet?

The long-awaited NYT story on online learning is here at last. Focuses a lot on K12 Inc.* There will be plenty of back and forth but a couple of quick reactions.  First, while this story takes  a pretty strong point of view (too strong in places in my view) that shouldn’t obscure that quality in the online space is quite mixed and there is something of a bubble around virtual and ed tech more generally.  But – context alert! – quality is very mixed in all sectors of public education.

It’s pretty clear that this is as much a public policy story as a financial one. Regulations have not yet caught up with technology in terms of online ed so public policies around finance, attendance (eg the recent dust-up in CO), etc…are increasingly out-of-step with what new providers are doing. Exploiting inefficiencies in public policy is nothing new for vendors, in education and more generally. And that’s not a reason not to have online programs.  But, it does mean state policymakers need to start thinking a lot more about core issues such as resource allocation and accountability with an eye toward a much more diverse system of providers.  Many of today’s policies simply don’t work in this environment. If providers fight efforts to fix these issues hold them accountable for that, but don’t hold them accountable for the existence of policies they didn’t create.

For its part K12 – and all online providers – should be conducting rigorous and independent evaluations that take into account the context in which they operate and show impact on students. If they continue to rely on AYP and other measures they’ll always find themselves on the defensive.  There isn’t an excuse for low-performing schools but context does matter in thinking about non-traditional schools. Finally, more generally, K12′s US operations showcase the promise and the challenges here.  Their curriculum is very strong – not surprisingly – because of the considerable investment they made in it and continue to make. But school delivery remains a challenge. Like many other education ventures and initiatives there is a lot of learning bound up in there but it’s unlikely to be surfaced in today’s polarized debate.

*Disc – Bellwether has worked with K12 in the past but is not now.  No one at BW has any financial position in the company.

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