The Best of Education, the Worst of Education

Retort by Harry Keller with a distilling retort on the left

If you’ve been paying attention to online education, you’ve seen the hype about how great it is. You may also have noticed that Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education for the Obama administration, is a big fan of online education. He sees it as a source of new ideas.

Online learning certainly is revolutionary as was steam power, for example, or electricity. But it’s what we do with it that will make the difference. Suppose that you had the opportunity to create a new online learning school. A venture capitalist has provided you with funds, and now you must decide how to proceed. What will you create?

Each choice you make will impact the quality of education that your students receive and will also impact your bottom line. You choices will also affect the teaching experience in your school, your ability to hire good people, the quality of your Internet connection, and so on. Consider these as secondary issues when compared to product quality (i.e., how well your students are educated) and profitability. I focus on these two because they often are at odds with one another.

Online technology promises great education everywhere at low cost. The Internet is becoming ubiquitous. Even very poor countries around the world now have improved Internet access as fiber optic cables are laid to reach them. Here, in the United States, although we lag behind some industrialized nations, access is improving, and most rural locations receive some form of Internet access at a reasonable cost.

A big traditional conference hall, empty, seen from the back, with the words 'Design a new online school' on a screen above the rostrumBecause the cost of servers and broadband access is much lower than that of buildings and buses, the cost of delivering online education must be lower than that of traditional education. As better software tools become available, online teachers will be able to handle as many students as, or more than, their traditional counterparts with equal or better attention to individuals. As a side benefit, these teachers also do not have to commute, saving energy and carbon emissions.

Just imagine that you have no limits on spending and are allowed many years before profitability becomes an issue. You could find the best software for tracking student progress and providing just-in-time intervention if a student has problems. You could locate the best social networking software for allowing productive discussions about the current class topics. You could create curricula that engage students with creative thinking rather than memorizing for tests. You could use the newest multimedia technology to deliver compelling lessons – even in 3-D and Dolby sound. Teachers would become guides, coaches, and mentors helping students to find their own way. Course software would automatically determine when students must have more help and provide it if available or inform the teacher to take action. The software would also inform administrators about these incidents so that new learning threads could be created.

The combination of great teachers, well-trained in online instruction, dynamic software, worldwide social interaction, a database of all student online activity, data mining software that seeks out patterns in that database, and dedicated creative administrators might just build the best education system imaginable. Current traditional classroom education could not hold a candle to it.

However, we don’t live in this utopian world. The bottom line pulls like an albatross and constantly deflects our trajectory. In education, you have little ability to raise your prices. Charter schools, for example, have a fixed amount they receive per student. Even private schools have to deal with competition. Online schools do not have century-old tradition and decades of alumni to attract students and contribute in fund-raising drives. The quest for more profit must focus on costs.

Your school can achieve tremendous cost savings simply by not giving classes. You may laugh before you realize that some online diploma mills are giving diplomas for “life experience.” The highest costs for running online schools appear to be course creation and teacher salaries. The former occurs at the beginning, and the latter is recurring. You can reduce your start-up costs by hiring teachers who already have the courses designed or simply follow a textbook. The latter costs may be reduced by hiring teachers as 1099 employees who contract with you and are paid based on some formula related to the number of students. That way, you don’t offer benefits.

If you pay your teachers W2 salaries, then you reduce costs by increasing the number of students supervised. You also can avoid assigning students to a particular teacher. Instead, the first available qualified teacher handles the next student question. You can reduce or eliminate moderated discussions in classes so that teachers can deal with a larger number of students.

In short, you can minimize the costs of your online school by emulating the worst practices of traditional schools and then finding ways to make your education product even lower in quality than possible in such classes. You’ve turned your class into an online version of Princeton Review or Barron’s review notes and practice exams.

With online classes about to be at least a partial school experience for half of our students and with online tools becoming widespread even in traditional classrooms (sometimes as homework), it’s critically important that we, as a society, work for the best outcome.

I have found science courses offered by online schools that have no lab experience at all, not even virtual. Because few standardized tests actually test for the learning that should take place with such lab experience, it’s not surprising that these online science classes can produce good scores on standardized tests. The courses present the science concepts that will be tested, allow students to memorize them, and provide practice in preparation for the tests. They do not develop the students’ concept of the nature of science and do not exercise scientific reasoning skills. They certainly don’t allow students to collect or even work with empirical data. They’re just “teaching to the test.”

With online classes about to be at least a partial school experience for half of our students and with online tools becoming widespread even in traditional classrooms (sometimes as homework), it’s critically important that we, as a society, work for the best outcome.

At this moment in time, we have a choice. We can have the best of education, better than previously possible for large numbers of students, or we can have the worst of education, worse even than failing schools in large urban districts. We get to choose, but only if we act for our future, which depends on the quality of our education system for every student, and if we don’t get caught up in any “back to basics” movement. Our success lies in the future and not in the past. We need to use the best ideas available, many very old (e.g., Socratic method), and the newest technologies, but we should use these technologies with care and not just because they’re new and exciting.

Internet technology provides the biggest change to education since the invention of the printing press. Let’s use it well!

One Response

  1. Bravo, Harry!

    “In short, you can minimize the costs of your online school by emulating the worst practices of traditional schools and then finding ways to make your education product even lower in quality than possible in such classes.”

    What Harry describes is indeed happening, and to a frightening extent. Many of the most well-known online schools in America are paying teachers roughly $12 per hour, not far from half what a beginning teacher makes in many school districts. Not only that, they expect those teachers to handle several hundred students. A recent study by one such school found that its teachers averaged 1/2 hour per student per semester, and th school realized they needed to get those numbers down to contain costs.

    That did that by making sure the curriculum had nothing but auto-graded assessments. They even created a writing course that was 100% multiple choice. They reduced the teacher’s role to little more than a caretaker–no need for content expertise.

    Using such a curriculum, an online school within the public domain that I visited had one teacher covering all subjects (math, English, social studies, science, foreign language). This can only be possible when using the a curriculum that avoids all possible attempts at higher order thinking instruction.

    In the public domain, this can in theory be prevented by ensuring that online programs meet content standards, but too often that the school district signs off on a statement saying that the online program they just purchased meets the state content standards. How a school district can say that the 100% multiple choice writing program they just purchased meets standards is beyond me, but it happens all the time.

    What about the NCLB requirement that the teacher be highly qualified? Well, schools simply state that whoever wrote the curriculum was highly qualified, so the one who is actually teaching the course does not have to be.

    And the result is that the programs that try to do the right thing cannot compete. Their programs that demand the regular intervention of a qualified teacher are just too expensive in comparison.

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