As Digital Learning Draws New Users, Transformation Will Occur

The growth of online, or digital, learning presents real opportunities for transforming the nation’s public-education system to enable it to customize an education for each child and boost student achievement dramatically and affordably. Whether digital learning will fulfill its potential remains to be seen. The policies and regulations that govern online providers will certainly matter.

There are real disagreements over what set of policies would best enable digital learning to achieve its potential. It may be some time before a sufficient track record exists so that the current regulatory issues can be resolved. And there is another significant question to be addressed as well. As new policies and regulations governing digital learning are adopted, should they apply to the rest of the education system?

Take, for example, Utah’s digital-learning policy, which was enacted in 2011. Along with a marketplace of online course options for students and a means for dollars to follow students to the course of their choice, it created a way to base payment to online providers in part on student outcomes. Online-course providers receive 50 percent of the state’s per-pupil funds for a given online course up front and are paid the remaining 50 percent only when a student successfully completes the course. It’s a bold policy that begins to tie public education expenditure to student success.

A few online-learning providers have, in private, cried foul. Why shouldn’t performance-based funding apply to all K–12 education providers? Why discriminate, they say, against the online providers?

Pick Your Battles

Why indeed? There is a seductive logic to this narrative. If digital learning represents the means to transform America’s education system, shouldn’t the accompanying policies—such as Utah’s, which changes the regulatory structure from regulating inputs to recognizing outputs—govern America’s education system as a whole?

Following this logic, however, could actually strengthen today’s factory-model education system and work to prevent digital learning from transforming it. When Chester Finn writes in the previous essay about how self-centered interest groups and the current system’s organizational capacity serve to block the transformational road ahead, he inadvertently captures why.

Imagine introducing legislation to fund the traditional education system based on Utah’s model for funding its online courses. The reaction from those who operate the traditional system and their “self-centered interest groups” would be predictable: they would fight the change. Because the education-reform agenda has not focused on this type of policy to date, as Finn notes, there would not be a strong coalition in place to counter the opposition. The traditional system and its beneficiaries would probably win that fight if it took place today or in the near future. It’s not hard to argue that given how innovative and relatively untried the funding policy is, their victory might not be such a bad thing for now.

Similarly, moving away from seat-time requirements toward a competency-based system, in which students advance upon mastery of a concept or skill, is critical to unleashing the full power of digital learning. But because today’s education system was modeled after a factory, time rather than learning is the primary unit of measure. Shifting the regulatory structure to enable competency-based promotion may not provoke as vehement a fight from the established system as a new funding policy would, but it won’t necessarily create the change intended in the current system either, as those time-based processes are deeply ingrained in schools’ organizational fiber. Although states can shift toward competency-based promotion, we should expect its implementation to be piecemeal, as those engaged in digital learning utilize the mastery measure first and most dramatically.

As these examples demonstrate, education regulations for the digital-learning world of tomorrow will almost certainly be implemented piecemeal. Online learning will, for many reasons, be held to a higher standard initially. Those bullish about using digital learning to create a student-centric system by creating policies that focus on student outcomes and growth, rather than inputs, will need to take a strategic view of the course ahead and not invite inevitable battles until they are armed to win them.

Envisioning the Future

With two distinct sets of regulations in effect (broadly speaking for simplicity’s sake), how will the education system be transformed?

The theory of disruptive innovation, which explains how sectors offering solutions that are complicated, expensive, and relatively inaccessible are transformed into those providing solutions that are simple, affordable, accessible, and convenient, helps show a possible path forward and provides a theoretical underpinning for the piecemeal strategy.

Online learning is a disruptive innovation. Such innovations start as simple products or services that appeal to people on the fringes who cannot access, use, or afford the sector’s primary solutions. Over time, the disruptive innovations improve and become good enough to handle more complicated problems. As they do, people gradually abandon their old solutions and adopt the disruptive innovations, as they are satisfied with something that is good enough and is far more affordable, accessible, and convenient.

The rise of the personal computer presents the classic case. As the personal computer emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, it could barely do simple tasks like word processing, let alone the complicated tasks mainframe and minicomputers performed. But most people could not afford, access, or use mainframe and minicomputers. Personal computers began by serving these individuals. Bit by bit the computers improved, to the point where in the late 1980s they could do more complicated tasks. People who had previously used mainframe and minicomputers flocked to the personal computer, which was good enough even for their needs and significantly more affordable and convenient. Transformation did not come about by the personal-computer companies picking a head-on fight with the mainframe or minicomputer companies. Instead, personal-computer companies started in markets where the older companies could not compete and gradually gained share as their products improved. A similar story has been playing out with online learning over the past several years (see “How Do We Transform Our Schools?” features, Summer 2008).

What’s salient for the regulatory question is this: whenever a disruptive innovation emerges, it changes the definition of quality so dramatically that the metrics used to denote quality in the old system are completely inadequate. Those attributes we had previously associated with being good aren’t necessarily the ones that drive performance in the new system, so leveraging an existing framework to regulate the disruption just won’t do it justice, and could constrain it in unforeseen and unfortunate ways.

Trying to impose new metrics of performance or a new regulatory framework on the old system doesn’t work either. The systems are fundamentally incompatible, and any attempt to force them together will meet with fierce and predictable resistance. Existing and established systems are built to do certain things well, and by definition, they are not built to do other things. Indeed, refusing to acknowledge this incompatibility creates a high likelihood that the old will simply co-opt the new to sustain what it already does.

Consider the computer industry again. When mainframe and minicomputers reigned supreme, the mark of quality in a computer tended to be size. Bigger meant better. The rise of the disruptive personal computer flipped this on its head. Now smaller was better, as convenience and affordability were critical for the customer to place the computer on her desktop. Likewise, the complexity valued in mainframe and minicomputers was not valued in personal computers; simplicity, such that nearly anyone could use one, became a stamp of quality.

Applying the old metrics of quality to judge the personal computer didn’t make any sense, nor would have applying the new measures to the old products. This has been true whenever we’ve seen a disruption take hold, in sectors as diverse as consumer electronics, aviation, the military, and communications.

The same dynamics are in play with online learning as it gradually disrupts the existing factory model–based classroom system. Moving away from seat-time requirements toward competency-based learning, and away from regulating inputs toward a focus on student outcomes and student growth and toward financing systems in which money follows students, may also make good sense for the education system as a whole, but they are absolutely critical to this new innovation, as Finn observes.

Imposing new metrics on the old system, however, won’t work for the same reasons it wouldn’t have worked for computers. Predictably, and, to some degree, rightly, the groups that stand to lose the most from change will be highly motivated to fight back, or, even worse, to quietly co-opt the changes to support traditional ways of doing things.

Fortunately, disruptive innovations don’t need to engage in that fight. Transformation occurs as users leave the old system one by one and join the new disruptive one. E-mail, for example, didn’t seek to change the regulations and business model for the postal service. Transformation came when people, over time, recognized that e-mail was the more convenient option. Although it is tempting to imagine that we could just take the lessons or the core technology from the disruptive innovation and simply insert them into the original domain to transform a sector, it doesn’t work that way. The same patterns will play out with digital learning. Policies governing digital learning will and should be adopted piecemeal without requiring major modifications of current institutional arrangements wherever possible. Some of these policies will have an impact on the existing education system, but many won’t at the outset. For example, enabling dollars to follow students is critical for digital learning and is impossible to do without having some impact on the existing system. The same is not true, however, with the performance-based funding component in the Utah bill, which can and should be implemented separately.

What is critical is to make sure that as online learning continues to develop, it can do so within a newly imagined regulatory framework that puts students and their learning at the center. As the digital learning world expands today, however, that isn’t necessarily happening. The models and providers receiving funds aren’t always the ones that are best for students, because a policy framework that would distinguish on the basis of quality is not in place.

If the right policies are not put in place soon, we may find ourselves back where we started: with self-interested groups that benefit from the existing arrangement fighting the reforms that would bolster student learning. Only now those groups will include the ascendant online-learning providers themselves, as the traditional system will have co-opted the online-learning opportunity for its own aims.

Michael Horn is executive director of the education practice of Innosight Institute and executive editor at Education Next.

This article is part of a forum on whether digital learning can transform education. For another take, please see “First, We Need a Brand New K–12 System,” by Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Finn, C.E., and Horn, M.B. (2013). Can Digital Learning Transform Education? Education Next, 13(1), 54-60.

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