Barriers to Digital Learning

Digital learning has significant potential but it also faces significant political barriers.  Existing regulations, such as seat-time requirements, teacher certification requirements, and the immobility of student funding, all stand in the way of rapid expansion of digital learning in K-12 education.

Notice that I did not include the lack of a national set of standards as a significant barrier to the expansion of digital learning.  I understand that a number of backers of digital learning support the national standards movement because they believe it will allow digital learning providers to achieve scale and offer products in all 50 states without having to contend with 50 different sets of state standards.

But at the recent Harvard conference, Shantanu Prakash, the head of Educomp Solutions, one of the largest digital learning providers in the world, was asked whether different sets of standards were a major obstacle to his company’s operations.  He conceded that the markets in which they operate, principally India, have numerous different standards.  But he also said that this was a trivial barrier because one of the strengths of digital learning is that it typically consists of many small modules that can easily be added or dropped to fit every set of standards.

If backers of digital learning think we need to streamline state regulation to achieve scale, they should be focusing on teacher certification and seat-time requirements rather than standards.  But would any of them really support the idea of having teacher certification and time requirements decided at the national level?  Wouldn’t the opponents of digital learning be able to seize a national regulatory regime to block the expansion of digital learning everywhere?  If so, why is the same concern not true for national standards?

The reality is that the biggest opponent of digital learning will be the teacher unions, who must recognize that digital learning allows cost-savings by replacing labor with capital.  Digital learning backers will have to fight the unions in each state to ease teacher certification, seat-time, and the immobility of funding.  At least now they have beach-heads in states that have a more accommodating regulatory environment.  But if digital learning folks support the construction of a national regulatory regime, they may be marginalized everywhere.

9 Responses to Barriers to Digital Learning

  1. MOMwithAbrain says:

    So digital learning is less than paying a teacher?? How about the software?? The computers that will need to be bought?? Serviced?? Updated???
    How will this improve the quality of education when we know that Progressives push fads so why not keep pushing fads via the computers??

    Sorry but I think this will flush more tax dollars down the toilet unless there is some kind of guarantee that the curriculum will actually teach students quality academic content.

  2. allen says:

    Well let’s see.

    A lot of the software will be/is open source, i.e. free.

    You’re using open source software right now. The internet is built on open source software and an increasingly large percentage of the software you use is open source. Firefox, for instance.

    The computers? They’re coming down in price. A lot. A lot of kids already have all the computing power they’ll ever need in a cell phone. And they’re getting more powerful and capable by the month.

    The fads edu-frauds push exist because of the public education system. Without a monopoly that’s indifferent to results edu-crap would never show up much less become a bone of contention.

    Ya gotta keep up mom. The world’s changing fast and it won’t wait for you to catch up.

  3. Amanda Murrell says:

    well said Allen…

    Although I would like to point out that Digital Learning is not a fix all to education but merely one tool that we should utilize to achieve maximum results. There will always be some students that learn best in a traditional enviornment….although I think those numbers are dwindling as this generation is the first to have computers and cell phones so readily avabile. This means that the view of the world was formed at a young age very different from previous generations. They don’t look at things the same or learn the same. The problem is traditional public ed refuses to acknowledge that it isn’t still the 1950’s. I for one can’t wait for the day that blended learning (some classes in virtual and some in a classroom) become the norm.

    As far as funding….I have never understood why we allow the government to maintain such a monolopy on educating our children with our tax dollars. Most state constitutions say that they are “to maintain and operate a system of free public education” but that doesn’t mean it has to be the ONLY method of public education.

    Public education means at public expense for the good of all. Not some government run building with state employees.

    @MOM – What kind of guarentee do we currently have that our kids are learning in a traditional (and expensive) public ed. The answer is NONE!

  4. MOMwithAbrain says:

    My point was, before you spend $$ on technology, I’d want a guarantee it was going to improve the quality of education. Without that guarantee, I wouldn’t want to waste MORE money.
    It’s not that I oppose technology, etc. I just do not like the schools spending MORE $$ and getting the same sorry results.
    I can see my district trying to buy all of the kids laptops because money grows on trees here 🙂 and kids still needing tutoring because the curriculum they choose is lousy. They choose lousy text books right now, what’s to prevent them from choosing lousy software??

  5. Amanda Murrell says:

    @Mom…I get what your saying but the money is already being spent (and wasted more often then not) on traditional public schools. Move funding based on student attendance/enrollment and stop forcing a one size fits all to education. I don’t think anyone is advocating spending more money on the “blob” that ate education. Just smarter spending on what works for individual kids and families.

  6. MOMwithAbrain says:

    Great, then I take it there are independent studies that show improvement in the quality of education when technology is utilized??

    My question always is, how does this make kids smarter??

    IF that happens based on the expenditure, it’s worth looking at. If it’s a wash, that might make sense too. However if there are costs involved and there’s no proof it will improve the quality of education, I think that’s a tough sell.

  7. Greg Forster says:

    You say “if there are costs involved.” but the whole point here is while you’re buying (moderately priced) software you’re simultaneously laying off (highly expensive) teachers. On net this is a huge savings, not a cost at all.

    Provided the layoffs actually occur. As Jay pointed out at our Friedman Foundation event two weeks ago, some digital learning advocates are trying to build political support by swearing that digital learning won’t involve layoffs. That changes the whole equation.

    We’d better not assume that the promises of no layoffs are just propaganda that leaders will be free to disregard later. There’s a reason you don’t give your kids dessert first on a promise that they’ll eat their broccoli next.

  8. MOMwithAbrain says:

    I understand what you are saying. I’m astonished at the number of staff we employ in our school district: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVZqSSL2Lwk
    Watch that video to the end.
    It’s SHOCKING.
    Do I think they will reduce staff in my district?? I’ll be surprised. I think this will simply fleece the taxpayers even more.
    The idea sounds good, but I know how things work in my district and I’d be surprised if they reduced staff to save money!!

  9. allen says:

    Thank you Amanda and I would be remiss in not pointing out that public education absolutely does mean “some government run building with state employees”.

    Everything “public”, i.e. political, is subject to the demands of the most powerful, consistent constituency. In the case of public education that’s come to mean the teacher’s unions which very properly seek to reduce public education “some government run building with state employees”. If you don’t like that outcome you’re perfectly welcome to assemble a powerful enough coalition and counteract the influence of the teacher’s unions. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs based on a political compromise reached over a hundred years ago but there it is.

    Mom, what I was getting at is that this technology’s already stirring things up.

    It’s not a matter of wise heads deciding whether to use digital technology or which particular variation or permutation is really the best. It’s here. It’s happening now and without the permission or even cognizance of the public education system much less the money of the public education system.

    The traditional public education system is irrelevant to this technology. The politics of public education effectively preclude the use of technology for it’s traditional purpose which is productivity enhancement. For the public education system more teachers are simply a better situation, fewer teachers a worse situation and student attainment irrelevant. The technology of digital learning can simply circumvent the public education system and allow parents, who are interested in student attainment, to circumvent the system as well.

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