Is Mandating Online Learning Good Policy?

An increasing number of advocates for online learning have come out in favor of mandating that states require students take at least one college- or career-prep course online to earn a high school diploma. Digital Learning Now!, a national campaign chaired by former Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise to advance policies to create a high quality digital learning environment for each student–and where I serve as a “Digital Luminary,” is on board as well.

States are taking notice. Michigan jumped in first with an online-learning requirement for graduation 5 years ago, and Alabama quickly followed suit. In the last year, Florida and Idaho have jumped on board as well, and districts, such as Tennessee’s Putnam County schools, have adopted an online-learning graduation requirement, too.

But is an online-learning requirement a good idea? For someone who advocates for a transformed student-centric education system powered by digital learning, you might think my quick answer would be an emphatic yes, but I’m not so sure.

I’ve never been bullish on mandates. As a general rule, they tend to distort markets and sectors, have unintended consequences down the line at best and immediately at worst, and lock in ways of doing things at the expense of innovation.

My overriding concern has been to see a student-centric system emerge that can flexibly and affordably respond to different student needs so that students can realize their fullest human potential. Digital learning, I argue, provides the platform to do this at scale, but in many cases, students may learn better offline, and a system powered by digital learning should be able to accommodate that. The purpose should never be technology for technology’s sake.

As Katherine Mackey and I have written, the focus from a policy perspective should ultimately be on student outcomes, not the inputs to get there. Focusing on inputs has the effect of locking a system into a set way of doing things and inhibiting innovation; focusing on outcomes, on the other hand, encourages continuous improvement against a set of overall goals and can unlock a path toward the creation of a high-quality student-centric system.

One argument though in favor of an online-learning graduation requirement is actually from an outcomes perspective that has some merit. The outcome from taking an online course—gaining the skills to succeed in a digital environment and perhaps become more self-driven—is valuable in a world in which postsecondary education and work-force training are increasingly done online and lifelong learning is critical to people’s lifetime success.

A question to ask perhaps is if this is the right way to seek those outcomes? Can we require that students develop these skills but leave open the possibility that there may be other ways to acquire these? I’m on the fence.

In many ways, an online learning mandate appears to be yet another input-based requirement in a system already overburdened with mandates—and in conflict with the very spirit of digital learning. If the purpose of this mandate is simply to bolster online learning for its own sake out of a belief that this is the only way to break the current factory-model system, I think that’s a mistake.

As Fordham’s Education Gadfly recently wrote, “Supporters of such mandates often claim that learning how to take an online course is itself a critical skill to build. But if the courses are well-designed (like, say, your iPhone), mastering the experience should be a no-brainer.” To this I might add that given Digital Learning Now!’s recommendation that dollars follow students to the online course of their choice and not the district’s, if the experience is so important or compelling, won’t students naturally flock to online learning?

-Michael Horn

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