Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Hess Calls for Humility

Regardless of your views on the pros and cons of “digital learning” in K-12 education, it’s hard to imagine that online instruction, educational games, embedded assessments, and the like won’t have a major impact on our school system in the decades to come. But advocates and critics alike worry: How can we ensure quality in this brave new world? Especially when hundreds of millions of dollars of private capital are flowing into the sector from investors dreaming of making big profits?

Enter Frederick M. Hess (a.k.a. Rick, the wicked smart guy in shorts), with a groundbreaking contribution published today from Fordham, “Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches.” This working paper is the first in a series of six, generously underwritten by the Helen and Charles Schwab Foundation; the others will look at accountability, cost, personnel policies, and other key issues.

So what does Hess conclude? Does he hit upon a magic formula that will ensure that all digital instruction is top-notch and reasonably priced, that all children will be 100 percent engaged with their studies, and that there will be a chicken in every pot to boot? Of course not. In Hess’s classic skeptical and brutally honest style, he explores the three main approaches to quality control—input regulation, outcomes accountability, and marketplace signal—and concludes that the best we can do is to thoughtfully combine them. Over to Rick:

Education posed enormous quality-control challenges even before the advent of digital learning. Any given approach to regulating inputs, basing accountability on outcomes, or trusting markets brings risks, imperfections, and unintended consequences. Though these negatives cannot be eradicated, the alternative—no quality control at all—is far worse. So we’re well advised to recognize and acknowledge the problems with available tools and mechanisms and then do our best to monitor, minimize, and combat them.

Regulating inputs like class size, instructional time, and staff credentials offers some minimal assurance as to what digital providers are actually doing, but carries a high cost in terms of stifling potential innovation, customization, and cost-efficiency. Policing outcomes offers the opportunity to ensure that providers are delivering results that meet a given standard for pupil growth or achievement, but encourages gamesmanship and disputes over the right metrics, even as it deters providers whose service doesn’t map neatly onto existing outcome measures. Markets offer diversity and scope for customization, but invite shoddy providers to profit, allow some families to be taken advantage of, and encourage online providers to focus more on marketing than on delivering a high-quality service.

The risks can be mitigated, if not eliminated, by thoughtful design and by combining these approaches judiciously. But there is no golden mean or foolproof formula. Various combinations mostly alleviate some concerns by posing new ones. Hence, given our scant experience with digital provision, it seems prudent to avoid sweeping national policies or requirements, at least at this stage.

Don’t fear, this isn’t just Hess dodging the question. In a sidebar he offers his own recommendations for what a “judicial combination” of these three approaches might look like in practice. (Basically: financial controls, accountability for results whenever possible, and lots of information for consumers, especially via “crowd-sourcing” feedback.)

There’s no Golden Mean or Foolproof Formula. Tape that one to your computer. But there are better and worse ways to police quality in digital learning (and other publicly funded pursuits); Hess’s thoughtfully reasoned paper points the way.

—Mike Petrilli

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