Jeb Bush, Melinda Gates, Sal Khan and the Coming Digital Learning Battle

The debate over digital learning will soon enter a new phase.  No longer will educators debate whether or not digital learning has the capacity to transform the American education system.   Just about gone are the anti-technology Luddites who insist that every classroom be self-contained, with students and teachers left to their own devices, save for the help of pencils, chalk, blackboards and weighty textbooks stuffed into 10 kilo backpacks.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that digital learning systems can be tailored to the specific interests, learning styles, and levels of accomplishment of each student.  As digital curricular materials employ ever-more-sophisticated technologies—3-dimensional videos, game playing, interactive exercises, real-time provision of information on student performance to teachers and students alike, and more—they will be seen as essential 21st century learning tools.

But we can expect a strenuous, highly politicized debate over the way in which digital learning should be provided.  On the one side will be those who propose that most digital learning in K-12 public education be of the “blended” variety, that is, take place within public school classrooms under the tutelage of a highly qualified teacher.

On the other side, “online” proponents will argue that blended learning alone is not enough.  American education can be transformed only if the power to drive change is placed in the hands of students, who are offered a choice of providers that include not only the blended classroom but also those who offer products  exclusively online, supplementing asymmetric video presentations of online materials with interactive systems that employ such tools as Skype, interactive games, social networking, email communications and phone conversations.

All of this became clear at the conference sponsored in San Francisco last week by the Foundation on Excellence in Education, the nonprofit headed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is promoting a strikingly innovative, bipartisan reform agenda that combines the Common Core standards promoted by the Gates Foundation and the Obama Administration with the accountability and choice principles to which he was committed during his eight years as Florida’s governor.

It is digital learning that holds together and gives spark to Bush’s agenda.  Common standards provide a nationwide platform upon which next generation curricular materials can be built; choice allows students to pick the courses most suited to their needs, abilities, and interests; and accountability ensures that learning is genuine.

Bush put on an impressive show.  His self-deprecating wit, extraordinary command of the subject, and undeniable passion generated a level of enthusiasm seldom found outside the confines of a well-orchestrated campaign event. When the former governor interviewed Melinda Gates about her support for Common Core standards, she relaxed noticeably, revealing a personal warmth and depth of knowledge less well displayed in her formal presentation.

But the true star of the show was Sal Khan, a former venture capitalist turned curriculum specialist, who has become a rock star of digital education. Unlike some other proponents of digital learning promoting their wares at the conference, Kahn taught his audience by both precept and example.  Not only did he advocate next-generation learning, but, in so doing, he blended a sweater-casual speaking style with a smoothly offered, high-tech digital presentation that was little less than astounding.  When he finished, only the most hard-nosed of skeptics walked away unconvinced that Khan had invented the one-and-only way to teach math to young people.

For Khan, next-generation learning combines simple, short, witty videos with problem sets that must be mastered before one moves to the next stage of instruction.  To motivate students, he uses, surprisingly, nothing more than badges and other phony rewards reminiscent of the stars that old-fashioned elementary school teachers used to post next to the names of high achievers.  Real-time data on success and failure is provided simultaneously to teachers, students, parents and anyone else authorized to access that information. You can learn all about the Khan method by looking at his videos on YouTube.

Yet Khan leaves the debate over blended versus online learning wide open.  On one side, the power of online learning is demonstrated by videos that are being viewed by Khan’s distant cousins as well as by the next generation of the Melinda and Bill Gates family, a saxophone player who is self-educating himself into an electrical engineer, and millions of young people in developing countries across the globe.

But the “blenders” will undoubtedly point to certain in-classroom keys to his accomplishments in the public schools of Los Altos, California.  There, student success at problem-solving is monitored in real time by teachers, serving as coaches, who intervene when videos are not enough. For blenders, the keys to the intervention’s apparent success include the use of real-time performance information by qualified teachers, not just the videos and problem sets.

Apparent success, it must be said, because the impact of neither the blended nor the online version of the Khan intervention has yet to be documented by a randomized trial.  Still, Los Altos school authorities are impressed enough to allow Khan Academy to expand from just a couple of demonstration classrooms to middle schools throughout the district.  And other charter and district schools are climbing on board this fast-moving train.

But the debate between blended and online learning will continue.  Too much politically is at stake for it to be otherwise.  It is not yet clear that blended learning a la Khan Academy will be any more efficient than the current bloated system of public education.  At a time of extreme fiscal exigency, legislators will look for ways in which technology can save money, not for new ways to add costs.

Meanwhile, school districts and teacher unions can be expected to fight publicly funded online learning that offers students a choice of taking courses outside their local district school.  If online learning should prove to be more effective than the learning that takes place within classrooms, it would provide a serious challenge to the school district-teacher union duopoly that blended learning does not.

-Paul E. Peterson

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