November 21, 2011

The politics of digital learning

Among our chief concerns is the increased polarization that is growing within political debates about online and blended learning. Keeping Pace 2011 touched on these concerns on pages 62-63.

“The growth of online and blended learning draws from many factors, including the recognized need to improve public education opportunities and achievement, the increasing influence of technology on a large variety of fields, and the rise in student options among public schools. Policy and politics undoubtedly have been among the components that have steered the growth as well…While the political process is dynamic and springs from many sources, political will has been a major factor in overcoming the inertia of bureaucracies and others not inclined to embrace new educational possibilities…

We believe online and blended learning truly are non-partisan, non-ideological issues that can unite those whose views may otherwise diverge. Members of both sides of the aisle have a history of supporting online and blended learning. The range of educators and policymakers engaged in online and blended learning suggests that the political views of such education advocates are diverse. Online and blended learning supporters are found in rural, suburban, and urban school districts; in states that are coastal or interior, north or south, and red or blue. Advocates are found in newly-created charter schools and within large school districts that have served students for decades. Online and blended learning educators are innovative, and their innovation is not tied to a particular political outlook. For the gains in online and blended learning to be real and long-lasting, policy changes should be based not on political gain, but on what is best for students. That’s politics with a small “p”—non-partisan, non-electoral and distinctively non-polarizing.

This spectrum of diverse political views of education innovators is not, however, well-reflected in the recent media narrative or political debates tied to online learning laws in some states…The partisan arguments of 2011 reflect roiling historical battles in education, have very little to do with the web-based delivery model and do not focus on what we believe should be the primary role of digital learning endeavors: to enhance student success.

The political divisions that we saw when we wrote those passages have, if anything, increased since then. The National Summit on Education Reform held in October in San Francisco, for example, drew protestors who decried what they perceive as the takeover of education by private companies who see nothing more than a market opportunity. Those protestors clearly did not hear the message of many speakers at the event, including keynote speaker Sal Khan—whose non-profit organization is obviously guided by a social mission—and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Unfortunately, there were a few speakers at the event who perceive existing schools, teachers, and administrators as a key problem to be overcome, and gave the protestors fuel for their arguments. Those people and conversations, however, did not and should not overshadow the larger discussions that were focused on improving student opportunities and achievement.

The polarizing trend has continued with the publication of reports in which authors make their biases clear: they do not believe that private companies should have a role in education, and they believe that online learning is being driven largely, if not entirely, by for-profit companies. These arguments, from sources such as The Nation and the National Education Policy Center, have too many flaws to fully address in this blog post, so I will focus on two main ideas.

1. The view that online learning is being driven by for-profit companies is wrong.

Public agencies, school districts, and non-profit organizations are among the most innovative online and blended learning providers. Florida Virtual School—which was created and sustained by the Florida Legislature, and operates as a special school district—has served more students than any online school in the country, and remains a public entity. The state virtual schools in Alabama and North Carolina are public agencies that serve tens of thousands of students annually. School districts from California (Los Angeles, Riverside, and many others) to New York City, and countless others in between, have created online and blended programs. Major non-profit organizations involved in online learning include the National Repository of Online Courses (NROC), Khan Academy, and Michigan Virtual University.

For-profit providers, including Connections Education, K12 Inc., Blackboard, Apex Learning, and others are an important part of the mix as well. No knowledgeable person could truthfully assert that for-profit companies are not involved in and important to online and blended learning, but neither can a knowledgeable and honest person declare that only for-profit companies are involved.

2. For-profit companies are not inherently good or evil; nor are non-profits or government agencies.

As Michael Horn has detailed well in his paper “Beyond Good and Evil: Understanding the Role of For-Profits in Education through the Theories of Disruptive Innovation,” all entities have advantages and disadvantages specific to certain situations, and each can be honest and successful, or corrupt and wasteful—regardless of governance structure. For-profit companies have advantages of being able to attract capital and make large-scale investments. Non-profit organizations can serve areas with few customers who are willing or able to pay. Government agencies can tap into public funds and spread costs across communities, counties, regions, or beyond. Taken together, a range of organization types can serve a range of educational needs.

Much of the policy debate, and too many of the reports that have been recently released, are doing little to advance a productive policy debate. Keeping Pace 2011 makes several recommendations to guide discussion, including “outcomes should drive policy….students need options with accountability”…and, finally, “online and blended learning should not be confused with, or associated with, a partisan agenda. A focus on sustainable changes that concentrate on improving student outcomes and educational opportunities is surely not a partisan issue.”

A final comment from a purely personal perspective: Over the two decades of my professional career, I’ve spent substantial amounts of time in both non-profit and for-profit organizations, and have worked extensively with public agencies. Many of these have been in education, but I have also spent considerable time in the natural resources and environment field, working with NGOs including Conservation International and the World Resources Institute, government agencies including the National Park Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, and private companies including renewable energy providers and environmental consultants. In both education and environmental work I’ve experienced the pleasure and frustration of working with people who represent the full spectrum in terms of ability, compassion, motivation, ideals, and just about any other personality trait you can think of. Further, I’ve found that the stereotypes that associate people and organization type are somewhere between overblown and completely irrelevant. Sure, there are some people in public agencies who are out the door when the day’s closing bell rings—and these people exist in private organizations as well. Yes, some people in for-profit companies are motivated primarily by money, but similar people exist in public agencies; they simply substitute power for money as their motivation. And surely many people go into NGOs because of their ideals, but most of them find along the way that they need to make a living too.

Those who seek to influence public opinion and policy through their analysis and writing should hold themselves to a higher standard than basing their arguments on weak assumptions, stereotypes, and pre-conceived notions.

2 Responses to The politics of digital learning

  1. Thanks, John for a very balanced perspective. I would certainly agree that the majority of people I have met in public schools are passionate about the successful education of all students, just like the majority of people I have met in “for profit” companies. It really IS about the people – especially students – and not about partisan politics.

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