Online Education Efforts Grow Amid Regulation Fears

Published March 19, 2010

Advocates of online education are praising a new national education technology initiative while touting the tremendous capacity of virtual schools to transform the K-12 system. But reformers also caution too much federal government meddling could hamper technological innovation.

A U.S. Department of Education working group has released the first comprehensive draft of its National Education Technology Plan (NETP), titled “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology.”

The draft, released March 5, calls for large-scale changes in learning schemes, testing structures, and teaching methods to reduce academic achievement gaps and increase the number of college graduates.

‘An Equity Issue’

From June through November 2009, a working group of professional educators and policy advisers gathered input from thousands of education employees and researchers through two conferences and an interactive website. The NETP was last updated in 2004.

Karen Cator, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology, said she believes virtual learning will continue to play an important role in the effort to make technological advances in K-12 schools.

“We’re beginning to see a bit of a convergence between textbooks and online learning,” she said. “The opportunity afforded to students and teachers when they have access to rich content online is very important.”

Cator also cited the powerful effect online learning can have in reaching students in underserved communities that lack quality teachers and resources. “It’s an equity issue,” she said.

Measuring Achievement, Not Sitting

Some advocates of Internet-based education models laud the call for significant, system-wide changes in how individual students are credited with academic advancement.

“Reforms must include systems redesign and drive innovations in policy and practice,” said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. “Moving away from seat-time toward competency-based pathways for student learning is critical.”

The Education Department’s plan identifies one of the four “grand challenges” for implementing technological advances as finding “design principles” to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of online education.

Patrick says the technology plan’s goals should be adopted more broadly.

“Perhaps more traditional [education] models would embrace online learning as the only way to meet the grand challenge of better outcomes for half the time and at half the cost,” she said.

More Time for Students

The new NETP urges private groups to promote national certification standards for online teaching, but Patrick says she believes instructional training should be better integrated across the board.

“It is critical that colleges of education prepare every teacher to learn to teach online in blended, hybrid, and online courses and programs,” she said.

The plan also calls for the traditional classroom instructional model to be replaced by “teams of connected educators” acting in collaboration and linked to data and resources that help them quickly assess student needs and provide effective interventions.

“We don’t believe that is done by replacing teachers with technology, but using technology to make the teaching force as powerful as possible,” said Cator.

But John Danner, CEO of the successful Rocketship Education charter school network, has reduced his elementary teaching workforce by 25 percent through the integration of on-site online instruction.

“If computers are able to cover basic skills, that would allow teachers to spend a lot more time in focusing on helping students to learn how to think,” he said.

‘A Very Fragmented Marketplace’

Paul Peterson, director of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy, says the Education Department’s $650 million Investing in Innovation grant program could spur important advances.

“It is still too early to tell,” Peterson said, “but this initiative creates the opportunity for truly major innovations that will open up virtual learning to many more students.”

Cator argues the Department has a role in investing dollars and other resources in developing teaching and learning methodologies that the private sector can sell.

“It’s a very fragmented marketplace,” Cator said. “States and districts and schools make purchases. It’s difficult to expand the use of the most innovative technologies.”

But Danner said he is skeptical of the NETP’s emphasis on creating a significant federal government role in promoting the use of new technologies in K-12 education.

“The most productive thing to do is to remove the barriers and let people figure out how to do things productively,” he said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.

Internet Info

U.S. Department of Education, National Education Technology Plan 2010: