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Virtual learning continues to experience explosive growth. It holds the potential to help address many of our nation's most pressing educational issues.
Yet, amidst this growth, there are troubling signs that virtual learning may not transform American education, but instead replicate many of its worst features. Access to virtual learning opportunities is highly varied across districts and states, as is quality. The state policy landscape continues to be muddled. And federal policy is limited.
Even the annual "Keeping Pace with K–12 Online Learning" report, sponsored by a number of leading online learning organizations, cautions that "purchasing practices are outpacing available measures of quality….it is easy for low-quality, low-cost providers to say that they meet state content standards and teacher certifications….[and] critically important decisions about online learning resources are all too often being made largely on the basis of price, which can lead to poor results for individual schools and for education as a whole."
The question is not whether virtual learning will grow, but how?
Virtual learning models are evolving rapidly. We've already seen online learning evolve from a mostly text-based experience to one that can incorporate sophisticated gaming, adaptive assessment, and a variety of social networking platforms. Since it's almost certain that we cannot predict what types of innovative learning options will become available for students in the next decade, it’s essential for policies to be open to new formats, methods, and providers—including public, nonprofit, and private.
Yet, at the same time, public education and public funding must serve a public purpose. In particular, our approach should be guided by the principles of equity, quality, and efficiency, with a specific emphasis on improving outcomes for low-performing and disadvantaged students.
Our country's recent experiences with charter schooling demonstrate that openness to new governance structures and forms of schooling is important, but no means sufficient, to ensure high-quality educational options. Perceptions or misperceptions of quality—especially in a field that adheres to traditional notions of “school”—are critical to continued openness and public support of new virtual learning options.
Moreover, we see disturbing signs that in the absence of a public agenda, the interests of individual providers, whether they are traditional school districts or private businesses, will drive this emerging market. Many traditional districts and education providers are resistant to and lack incentives to adopt new and potentially more productive and effective options. And, ambitious private providers are pushing their own, sometimes narrow, interests through aggressive lobbying and public affairs work. It’s quite natural and important for organizations to advocate on their own behalf. But, ideally, the field of competition and innovation is defined by educational outcomes, not statehouse lobbying for a particular product or intervention. We must craft policies that enable transparency, informed decision-making, and incentives that drive these actors toward important public purposes.
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