The Trojan War and Odyssey of digital learning

After reading her third or fourth chapter in the TBFI volume on digital learning, a reader can be forgiven for feeling exhausted and bewildered.

There’s been so much hype about online learning and so many promises of revolutionary impact that entirely too little attention has been given to the staggering obstacles standing between today’s delivery system and that envisioned by technology’s strongest proponents.

Apple toss

This TBFI volume is educational for sure and endlessly fascinating, but, above all else, it is cold-turkey sobering. I previously posted on the papers associated with accountability and educator effectiveness, which described in great detail how our current systems of assessing schools and preparing and evaluating educators are wholly unsuited to the era we’re supposedly entering. While those authors had some valuable suggested courses of action, they most certainly provided no map to carefully guide us past the Sirens and between the Scylla and Charybdis of this odyssey.

John Chubb’s chapter on governance and public policy is, then, much like the Iliad, a description of the single-site war that led to a succession of odd and disparate battles across the entirety of the days’ known landscape. In other words, Chubb’s piece is a prequel to the other chapters; before we can even think about fighting the Cyclops of new accountability systems, we must first defeat the Hector of antiquated public policies and breach the insuperable Trojan wall of local politics that has delineated for generations the acceptable territory of K-12 education.

Polyphemus
The challenges posed by digital learning are downright Homeric.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Those familiar with Chubb’s previous work will quickly recognize his signature approach: Systemic problems are the real challenge. By philosophy, I too am a the-system-is-the-problem advocate, so his analysis and prescriptions resonate with me. But having done state-level policymaking for the last two years, my pragmatic, battle-scarred side agrees with him as well.

(In a future post about my soon-to-be-released book, I’ll take some time to sing hosannas to Chubb and his collaborator Terry Moe and their seminal book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which for twenty years has been the standard to which system critics have aspired.)

Chubb’s general argument here is that there are numerous policies and practices in place that stand in the way of moving toward greater online and blended learning. His catalogue of these hurdles will be very familiar to those who’ve been pushing greater online learning, but to those only peripherally engaged in this discussion, this chapter may cause reactions ranging from astonishment and disbelief to a sense of helplessness and an impulse to surrender unconditionally and return to the family farm.

Though he structures his article around ten recommendations, I think four more general points are worth calling out here.

First, he argues that states—not the feds and not districts—have the greatest chance to drive change. To bolster his argument, he points to the snake pit of local politics, the lack of federal authority in this area, and the success of a few state leaders to date.

Second, the differences between full-time and part-time online learning are enormous, not just for kids, parents, and educators but for markets and policies. Chubb raises interesting points about what states should allow, what they should require, and what they should prohibit. This analysis is edifying. Policymakers should pay close heed. Among other interesting tidbits, during his discussion of part-time online learning, Chubb brushes up against Rick Hess’s take on the difficulty of attributing student academic gains in an increasingly complex learning environment.

Third, Chubb sees a larger role for charter-school authorizers in the future. Given their ability to analyze different programs and hold schools and providers accountable for results, authorizers may be better positioned than any other entity to lead in this area. Attached to his recommendations here are a provocative argument about for-profit providers and a compelling case for assigning each child a “home school of record,” even when she chooses another option.

Finally, possibly the most interesting set of arguments relate to educator-associated policies, including rules on class-size and certification. This section brushes against Bryan and Emily Ayscue Hassel’s chapter and comes to some of the same conclusions, though Chubb shows a remarkable and commendable degree of humility and risk-tolerance.

Since we know so little about what great teaching in this new era looks like, we should allow lots of experimentation.

This oversimplifies his argument, but the gist is that since we know so little about what great teaching in this new era looks like, we should allow lots of experimentation and largely scrap most of the input-based rules governing how a teacher enters the classroom and earns the right to stay there.

There’s more to learn and like about Chubb’s piece, so, although it could’ve used some editing (it’s way too long), if you’re particularly interested in public policy, you should give it a look.

But more importantly, if you’re a fanatical and semi-undiscerning advocate for online learning (this condition is hard to self-assess so ask a friend if you might have caught the bug), this should be required reading. The complications of moving to greater digital learning are legion. Even if we decide they shouldn’t stop our current steady march forward, we all should be aware of them.

I’m not sure if TBFI’s goal was to produce a volume that comes across as something between a scolding Athena-like schoolmarm and a wise, crafty, Odysseus-like critical friend, but they’ve managed that quite well. And though we might not like such figures in the anguish and apprehension of real time, we generally appreciate them more and more as time passes and reality evolves into history and legend.

So it will be with this book, I suspect.

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