Will We Have the Best Courses Online in Five Years?

Within 10 years, half of all high school courses will be taken online, say Clay Christensen and Michael Horn.  Bill Gates has now trumped that prediction with an even stronger one: within five years the best higher education will be available on the internet.

I will make a further prediction: Within five years Bill Gates will recommend that high school courses be taken online, something he has so far failed to forecast or encourage.  Instead, Microsoft’s top executive drew a distinction between K-12 and higher education, encouraging online learning only for higher education, as if young adults at the age of 15 and 16 are drastically different from those at age 18 and 19.

If any of these predictions are going to be fulfilled, a policy framework must be created that encourages transparency, accountability, and competition in exchange for government compensation given to the provider of online courses the student selects.  If the government is going to continue to subsidize secondary and higher education, then the government must compensate Microsoft, Google, MIT, Middlebury College or anyone else who designs high-quality online courses.  The provider must be paid for each and every student who takes a course in the same way they are paid for any iPad purchased or college course taken today. Only in that way will high-quality producers have the incentive to create the best possible courses.  And for students to select those courses, the course must carry credit that counts toward the high school diploma or the appropriate college degree.

We are closer to getting the incentives right in higher education, as it is mainly regulated by private accrediting agencies rather than by state policy.  As a result, colleges and universities are now offering many courses online, and nothing prevents any of them from offering all of their courses on line.  According to a recent Babson College survey, 25 percent of all students are taking at least one course online.  Nothing prevents the online learning experience from becoming the dominant form of instruction, if Bill Gates is right in saying those courses will be both the best available and the least expensive to take.

To achieve a similar breakthrough at the high school level, states must require districts to grant credit to any appropriate, quality course taken online, regardless of the provider. In Florida and Idaho, high school students today can choose between online and brick-and-mortar courses, taking as many of each as suits them.  The state issues its money to the course provider the student selects.  If other states also allow students to blend together a curriculum that combines on-site with online learning, and encourages competition among providers while checking to make sure that only quality courses are provided, secondary schools will move as quickly toward online learning as does the higher education sector.

The case for online learning at the high school level may be even more powerful than the case Gates has made for higher education.  The institutions in the United States that are most in need of repair are not colleges and universities, despite their steeply rising costs and rapidly falling expectations for students.  Even worse are high schools, where teachers and students have struck a political bargain that exchanges passing grades for passive seat-seating.

Virtual education has a chance to change all that by holding students accountable for successfully completing exciting, transparent courses that reach each student at his or her particular level of accomplishment.

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