Digital Learning

Guest blogger Eleanor Laurans, a senior principal at The Parthenon Group, co-authored "The Costs of Online Learning," a chapter in Fordham's new volume, Education Reform for the Digital Era.

“Online learning is a cheaper way to educate my kids?  That’s great—where do we sign up?!”

I don’t know many parents who would utter such a remark—do you?

Education Reform for the Digital Era

Our team’s research for our recent chapter of the Fordham book, Education Reform for the Digital Era, did in fact demonstrate that online learning can be less expensive—sometimes significantly less expensive—than traditional bricks-and-mortar schools. This is an important and exciting finding, as many schools today are striving to figure out ways to navigate budget crises. But it would be a mistake to focus solely on cost as the field of digital learning evolves. Of course there are cheaper ways to educate our kids. The critical question is, Can online learning be less expensive and better for students?

We don't know if online learning works. We...

Digital learning is more than the latest addition to education reformers’ to-do lists, filed along with teacher evaluations, charter schools, tenure reform, academic standards, and the like. It’s fundamentally different: For digital learning to fulfill its enormous potential, a wholesale reshaping of the reform agenda itself is required, particularly in the realms of school finance and governance. But just as online education needs those reforms if it is to flourish, so does major education reform need digital learning, which can provide valuable solutions to some of the greatest challenges in this territory—beginning with the basic obsolescence of public education’s familiar delivery system.

Today, American education has the potential to be rebooted and accelerated by digital learning. Indeed, truly boosting student achievement—as well as individualizing instruction and creating high-quality options for children and families among, within, and beyond schools—will depend to a considerable extent on how deftly we exploit this potential, both in its pure form (full-time online instruction) and in various “blended” combinations of digital and flesh-and-blood instruction.

Road closed
Serious obstacles block the road to realizing

Guest blogger John E. Chubb is interim CEO of Education Sector and author of "Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning," a chapter in Fordham's new volume, Education Reform for the Digital Era.

Education Reform for the Digital Era

Back in the day, a prominent education reformer asked me to send him a fax rather than an email. Asked why, he replied, only half jokingly, “if God had wanted us to use email he would not have invented the fax machine!” Reflecting on the remark I always chuckle, but then think: how prophetic. Technology has come slowly to K-12 education. Our schools and classrooms are not all that different from those of fifty years ago or longer. While most every industry has adopted new information technologies and often been transformed in the process, schools really have not.

Some of the pace must be attributed to the perspective unwittingly expressed by my reformer friend. Schools are the way they are for good reason. Students require the attention of caring...

Today Fordham is releasing a new volume explaining how the U.S. education system must change in order to realize the potential of digital learning. Education Reform for the Digital Era argues that major overhauls of school finance, governance, and accountability are needed if on-line education is to live up to its potential.

Education Reform for the Digital Era

The policy blunders that hamstrung the charter-school movement as it grew can be avoided this time if policymakers and education leaders demonstrate foresight and boldness now. To do so, explain editors Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniela Fairchild, those leaders must overcome entrenched interests, public education’s resistance to change, and the system’s basic structures for financing and governing.

The new book provides estimates of the costs—and savings—for online learning models, as well as targeted chapters on how to overhaul a system that has been leapfrogged by advances in technology. These address:

  • “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction,” by Bryan C. and Emily Ayscue Hassel;
  • "Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect)
  • ...

The full video from yesterday's panel discussion is now available online. Whether you attended in-person, joined the conversation online, or missed it altogether, you can watch the replay of the lively converstation on the future of digital learning (or read the recap from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

Be sure to mark your calendars for the release of Fordham's digital learning volume, "Education Reform for the Digital Era," available for download April 25, and continue the conversation by registering for "Digital Learning: The Future of Schooling?" That discussion, featuring an all-star lineup of policymakers, experts, and administrators, will be streamed live from Columbus, Ohio on Fordham's website from 1 to 4 p.m. EDT on May 17.



Will the digital-learning movement repeat the mistakes of the charter-school movement? How much more successful might today's charter universe look if yesterday's proponents had focused on the policies and practices needed to ensure its quality, freedom, and resources over the long term? What mistakes might have been avoided? Damaging scandals forestalled? Missed opportunities seized?

Can we be smarter about taking high-quality online and blended schools to scale—and to educational success? Yes, says this volume, as it addresses such thorny policy issues as quality control, staffing, funding, and governance for the digital sector. In these pages, the authors show how current arrangements need to change—often radically—if instructional technology is to realize its potential.

Table of Contents

Introduction, by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniela Fairchild

Chapter One: "Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction," by Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

Chapter Two: "Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Solutions," by Frederick M. Hess

Chapter Three: "The Costs...

Education Reform for the Digital Era

Education Reform for the Digital Era

Is digital learning education's latest fad or its future? What fundamental changes to the ways we fund, staff, and govern American schools are necessary to fulfill the technology's potential? Will policy tweaks suffice or do we need a total system overhaul—and a big change in the reform priorities that can bring this about? Who will resist—and do their objections have merit? Fordham is bringing together experts on all aspects of education policy—from governance to finance to human capital—to examine how policymakers can make digital learning a transformative tool to improve American education...and weigh the dangers that lie ahead.

The panel featured the governance expertise of the Hoover Institution's John Chubb, insights into teaching's future from Bryan Hassel of Public Impact, analysis of the costs of online learning from the Parthenon Group's Eleanor Laurans, and the cautionary perspective of Emory University's Mark Bauerlein.

How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar

How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar

READ "How School Districts Can Stretch the School Dollar"

Despite some signs of economic recovery, school districts nationwide continue to struggle mightily. Nobody expects economic growth—or education spending—to rebound to 2008 levels over the next five years, and the long-term outlook isn't much brighter.

In short, the "new normal" of tougher budget times is here to stay for American K-12 education. So how can local officials cope?

In my new policy brief, I argue that the current crunch may actually present an opportunity to increase the efficiency and productivity of our education system if decision makers keep a few things in mind:

First and foremost, solving our budget crisis shouldn't come at the expense of children. Nor can if come from teachers' sacrifice alone. Depressing teachers' salaries forever isn't a recipe for recruiting bright young people into education—or retaining the excellent teachers we have. Finally, quick fixes aren't a good answer; we need fundamental changes that enhance productivity.

So how can school districts dramatically increase productivity and stretch the school dollar?

One, we should aim for a leaner, more productive, better paid workforce. Let's ask classroom teachers to take on additional responsibility in return for greater pay, eliminate some ancillary positions, and redesign our approach to special education.

Two, we should pay for productivity. A redesigned compensation system would include a more aggressive salary schedule, more pay for more work and better results, and prioritization of salaries over benefits.

Three, we must integrate technology thoughtfully. Online and "blended" school models are coming to K-12 education. They can be catalysts for greater pupil engagement, individualization, and achievement and, if organized right, they can also be opportunities for cost-cutting.

Many districts continue to face budget challenges of historic proportions. Rather than slashing budgets in ways that erode schooling, let's rethink who we hire, what they do, how we pay them, and how to incorporate technology—that's where the big payoff is.

What fundamental changes to the ways we fund, staff, and govern American schools are necessary to fulfill digital learning's potential? There’s still time to hear experts answer that question by registering for this Thursday’s panel discussion, “Education Reform for the Digital Era,” from 9 to 10:30 a.m. EDT. The conversation will feature the governance expertise of the Hoover Institution's (and, now, Education Sector’s) John Chubb, insights into teaching's future from Bryan Hassel of Public Impact, the Parthenon Group’s Eleanor Laurans on the costs of online learning, and the cautionary perspective of Emory University's Mark Bauerlein. Register now to attend in person or stream the discussion live Thursday morning, and mark your calendars as this conversation continues in Columbus, Ohio on May 17. Be sure to send along your questions for panelists to


As Ed Week’s Katie Ash noted yesterday, opposition to virtual schooling (and the role of businesses in the field) remains very much in vogue. While NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant’s Huffington Post critique of online learning—and of John Chubb’s recent Gadfly editorial on the subject—is the most vivid example, Adam Emerson observed on Choice Words that such criticisms are going mainstream.

To parse the debate swirling around digital learning’s potential and the policy challenges it poses, Fordham will host several leading lights on the subject at our D.C. office on April 19. Chubb will join the Parthenon Group’s Eleanor Laurans, co-author of “The Costs of Online Learning,” Public Impact’s Bryan Hassel, and digital learning skeptic Mark Bauerlein for “Education Reform for the Digital Era,” a Fordham LIVE! panel discussion from 9 to 10:30 a.m. EDT.

Register now to reserve your seat, and be sure to head on up to American University this Friday to see Fordham President Chester E. Finn, Jr. discuss best practices in education with Bellwether Education's Andy Rotherham and Brookings’ William Galston from 1:30 to 3:30 at the “Whither American Education?” conference.