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 they have beach-heads now 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.

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