Research & Commentary: Digital Learning Possibilities and Pitfalls

Published April 11, 2012

Harnessing modern technology to tailor education personally and make it efficient is new and greatly unsettled territory. States, schools, entrepreneurs, and families are testing variations on many programs to see what works for them. Every state offers K-12 students some option for digital learning, but many programs are poorly funded and structured. The result is a wide variation in online learning quality between states and within states.

Critics of online learning and supporters of the current education system tend to see any shortcomings as reasons to entirely abandon integrating technology with education. They point to low student achievement levels of some online programs and the expense of building stronger wireless networks and purchasing computers, and they say little value is added by making computer use one more task for teachers and students.

Those who champion markets and individual liberty, however, say these occasional difficulties are part of the learning process, offering guidance on how states and families should proceed. Technology allows families and students greater freedom to finish school more quickly or more slowly depending on each student’s needs; greater freedom to travel and blend learning styles and opportunities; and relief for teachers and schools from many administrative burdens. All of this, digital learning proponents say, allows the best teachers and instruction to reach more students while reducing education costs.

Understanding that freedom to fail is necessary for innovation, proponents of online education generally advocate policymakers create a level playing field for various learning opportunities and provide an appropriate amount of oversight for public funds to ensure excellent options rise and poor options fall.

The following documents offer more information about the possibilities and pitfalls of digital learning.


In South Korean Classrooms, Digital Textbook Revolution Meets Some Resistance
South Korea has decided to scale back a plan that would have fully digitized textbooks and classrooms in the country by 2015, citing concerns from educators that students might benefit from less exposure to gadgets, reports the Washington Post. Research shows 8 percent of South Korean children ages 5 to 9 are addicted to the Internet. The number is similar for the United States.

Online Cravings
Newsweek reports on Internet addiction in South Korea, the world’s most wired country. Online gaming is one of the few places an average student can escape from the country’s high-pressure academic system and excel. The country has sponsored addiction counseling and treatment centers and is considering laws to alleviate the problem, especially among young users.

Manhattan Moment: No, More Computers Will Not Fix Our Broken Schools
The nation’s education decline was not caused by a lack of technology—use of technology has increased while our education system has declined, writes Heather MacDonald in the Washington Examiner. True reform comes not by adding expensive technology to existing school structures but by shifting education from a morass of flabby standards and curriculum to tough, content-centered, discipline-demanding environments.

The Morning-After Pill for Blended Learning
Regulating online education while it is still unsettled could abort the transformation it promises to bring to U.S. schools, writes Heather Staker for the Innosight Institute. The steps policymakers have taken so far to define online and blended learning and even their attempts to encourage it are more likely to stifle it, she observes. Because the innovation is still fresh and fermenting, policymakers should let individuals and organizations solve their own problems.

Critiquing Online Learning, Part One
Online education is like working out at home, writes Jason Fertig, a professor who has taught classes online at medium and large public universities: showing that something can be done is not the same as knowing it will be. Blended and hybrid learning are more likely to have good outcomes than strictly online education because they include tighter accountability and relationships between student and teacher. Online education can offer greater efficiency, he says, but there are caveats.

Critiquing Online Learning, Part Two
In a follow-up post for National Review Online, online professor Jason Fertig discusses why online education is not always a boon. Many traditional students see online classes as a way to earn three more credits without putting in three credits’ worth of work. Students with lower GPAs fail online classes more often than regular classes. This means online schools should screen students and implement accountability measures to compensate for the reduced amount of teacher contact.

The Possibilities of Online Learning
Online courses work best in blended environments and when teachers and schools reimagine the classroom and assignments to harness the power of technology, writes online teacher Gary Stager in the New York Times. Online learning can support classroom instruction and offer greater communication and collaboration than is currently allowed in classrooms.

Four Implementation Challenges for High Quality Digital Learning
To prevent digital learning from becoming ubiquitous but not transformative, schools and policymakers must keep close tabs on progress to ensure accountability for public funds without strangling innovation, writes Bill Tucker for Education Sector. He recommends four strategies: providing for transparency and free flow of information so parents can make good choices; not allowing credit recovery and alternative programs to be low-quality; engage local, private, and community organizations in new learning alternatives; and create new school finance and accountability structures to ensure equitable treatment for digital learning.

Digital Learning Now!
This 2010 report from the Foundation for Excellence in Education has become a central guidebook for policymakers seeking to establish smart digital learning policies. After explaining why states and schools must integrate online education, it outlines ten essential components for digital learning policies that provide equal access for students and a level playing field for providers while ensuring accountability and transparency of public funds.

Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning
The Evergreen Education Group’s annual report details policy changes and innovations in online learning across the United States. As of late 2011, it reports, online and blended learning opportunities existed for at least some students in all 50 states, but no state had a full suite of full-time and supplemental options for students at all grade levels. Developments over the past year include: Single-district online learning programs are the fastest-growing and tend to be blended instead of fully online; intermediate offices and education service agencies are assuming larger roles; several states passed important new online learning laws; and programs with reliable and substantial funding work best.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].