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June 08, 2011
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There’s nothing intrinsically political about digital learning. It’s not a right-wing plot to co-opt education policy, nor a ploy to destroy the teacher unions. And it shouldn’t become a conservative clarion call or liberal punching bag. Digital learning’s potential will be squandered by both sides and for all students if we allow it to be caught between partisan ideologies.
Contrary to criticisms from the Left, digital learning isn't a Trojan Horse for union-busters.
Photo by Frank Kovalchek.
Yet that is exactly what we’re doing today. Left-leaning pundits (including the gang at the National Education Policy Center) distance themselves from digital learning—decrying it a Trojan Horse for union-busters, little more than a ruse to kill organized labor and replace teachers with droids. They further vilify online learning as a mechanism to privatize K-12 education, citing Kaplan’s staggering non-completion and loan-default rates and the shaky academic-success rate of schools under K12’s watch (glossing over great examples of well-run for-profit online programs like Connections Academy). They feed on many people’s fear of the unknown.
For their part, right-leaning policy types have begun to shoehorn digital education into their own agendas—narrowly and blindly heralding the importance of privatization in the online sphere. They tout the efficacy of these selfsame for-profit providers without regard to their level of proven success. They ignore the need for public-sector accountability, despite historic proof that it’s necessary—at least on some level.
And so we stand, a line draw squarely down the center aisle, and at risk of arresting—or, at least, severely retarding—a movement crucial to the revitalization of America’s K-12 education system. To move past partisan politics will mean accepting a new tack to digital-education implementation. It will mean subjectively evaluating these entrepreneurial programs—and all other facets of online ed, discarding those that are found wanting, and buttressing those that are shown to be working. It will mean acknowledging that flesh-and-blood educators figure prominently in the digital-learning future and that for-profit providers cannot be the lone drivers on this road trip. It will mean moving slowly.
Yes, digital learning will drive tectonic shifts in education: How we hire, train, and utilize teachers will look dramatically different twenty years in the future, for example. Technology will free them from onerous administrative duties and allow master teachers to reach orders of magnitude more youngsters daily. (Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel eloquently explain this point in their chapter of our recently released Education Reform for the Digital Era book.) Content-delivery methods, measurements of proficiency, even the basic structures of the classroom, are all slated for renovation in the digital-learning future. (Looking outside the classroom, online education is set to spur evolution on the education-financing and -governance fronts over the next two decades, too.) Class teachers will play a prominent role in scaling these changes. But so will the private sector.
The digital future is inevitable. How we reach it, and what achievement levels we get from it, depend on foundational policies and practices we lay today. Moving smartly into this unknown future requires shedding partisan notions and strong-arm tactics. We’d all be wise to remember that.