Quality control in K-12 digital learning


Virtual schooling’s greatest power is that it creates the
opportunity to reconsider what is feasible in K-12 education. Digital learning
makes it possible to deliver expertise over great distances, permits
instructors to specialize, allows schools to use staff in more targeted and
cost-effective ways, and customizes the scope, sequence, and pacing of
curriculum and instruction for individual children. These add up to
facilitating the delivery of high-quality, high-impact instruction. But because
it destandardizes and decentralizes educational delivery, digital education is
far harder to bring under the yoke of the quality-control systems and metrics
that have been put in place for traditional school structures.

To realize the potential gains in cost efficiency,
customization, instructional quality, pupil engagement, and—ultimately—student
learning that the digital age makes possible will require policymakers and
practitioners to find new ways to monitor and police the quality of what’s
being delivered, and learned. Yet absent the familiar panoply of credentials,
staffing ratios, instructional hours, Carnegie units, and school days that now
provide tangible assurance that a given school is “real” and legitimate,
digital learning will struggle with finding acceptance—and could be bent to the
advantage of those who don’t place educational achievement at the top of their

it is difficult today even to visualize, much less to craft, brand-new quality-control
systems that adapt perfectly to the seismic shift that digital learning
represents. The best that policymakers can do at present is to select among—or
combine—three basic approaches, each with its own significant limitations:

  • Input
    and process regulation;
  • Outcome-based
    accountability; and
  • Market-based
    quality control.

These are not mutually exclusive options, but together they
comprise the basic menu of choices for policing digital learning (or any other
public function). The difficulty is that these approaches were devised for
assessing conventional institutions, not the more fluid networks of providers
and learners created by digital instruction. In the digital world—where new
tools and technologies offer dramatic opportunities to rethink teaching and
learning by disassembling a school, classroom, or course into its component
parts, then delivering instruction in more customized ways—these quality-control
approaches will no longer be a comfortable fit for providers. Any given approach to regulating inputs, basing
accountability on outcomes, or trusting markets brings risks, imperfections,
and unintended consequences. Though these negatives cannot be erased, the
alternative—no quality control at all—is far worse. So we’re well advised to acknowledge
the problems with available tools and mechanisms and then do our best to
monitor, minimize, and combat them.

The first step is to create a relatively uncomplicated
vendor-approval process that ensures that minimal fiduciary and academic
standards are being met. Providers should have to document to a designated
public entity that their books are clean and to report basic metrics for
services provided. For those providers that offer certain categories of
services—especially the kind that directly impact student achievement—it’s
reasonable to have a state review process that features some kind of
authorization and renewal.

Second, as providers deliver their wares—and families choose
among and students engage with them—it is essential that some entity collect
various kinds of data on performance. That’s apt to be a state responsibility
but could easily be delegated to any number of third-party monitors. But
whether a state agency acts directly or relies on others, a wide array of data
needs to be collected, gains measured and analyzed, and findings made public in
transparent fashion. Just as important is to gather and disseminate information
on consumer satisfaction and expert reviews of programs and providers.

Third, families need to acquire a vested interest in the cost-effectiveness
of their new opportunities by being given control over some discrete portion of
spending. This step is essential if parents are to approach schooling as more
than a unitary service and to start thinking about the quality of particular
services, and if education officials are to enjoy the encouragement and support
they need to revisit and change deep-seated routines.

All three are needed, in various
combinations. But don’t expect perfection. Each possible combination eases some
concerns while posing new ones. Hence, given our scant experience with digital
provision, it seems prudent to avoid sweeping national policies or
requirements, at least for now.

The challenges involved in effecting these shifts are both
familiar and new. In a sense, they are essentially the same challenges—to be
addressed by the same tools—that educators and policymakers have wrestled with for
decades. But in their current incarnation, they can be met only with a degree
of granularity, agility, and precision that is new to the world of K–12

A formidable task? Surely; because it is one
that will ultimately determine whether the advent of digital learning
revolutionizes American education or becomes just another layer of slate
strapped to the roof of the nineteenth-century schoolhouse.

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Click to listen to commentary on Rick's new paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast