ON-Lion Letter
More than two million K-12 students are enrolled in online courses today, and that figure is projected to increase five-fold by 2014.  Even so, the much-heralded expectations for education technology to truly transform teaching and learning are not yet fully realized. In a forum released in October by Education Next, "Can Digital Learning Transform Education?," Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael B. Horn discuss the question of whether technology will be powerful and attractive enough to change long-standing tradition, or whether we first must alter a host of other entrenched practices.

Finn is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and a contributing editor of Education Next.  Horn is executive director of the education practice of the Innosight Institute and executive editor of Education Next.

In the forum, Finn says that digital learning is "more than the latest addition to education reformers' to-do lists."  Fulfilling digital learning's enormous potential to boost student achievement, according to Finn, "will require a wholesale reshaping of the reform agenda itself, particularly in the realms of school finance and governance.”

Digital learning offers the potential for more cost-effective use of taxpayer funds for education, he observes, as the influence of good teachers can grow exponentially through technology, and students can customize the learning process to fit their needs.  Fundamental change is needed first, though -- changes like "moving money as students move, and paying for unconventional forms of instruction."  Rather than today's system, which focuses on "input regulations" such as textbook mandates; seat time rules; cumbersome, outdated certification requirements; and professional development units, public officials should place greater emphasis on vastly improved data systems, better teacher evaluations, curricular quality, and meaningful accountability.

Horn agrees that the factory-model structure of American education must change, but he puts stock in the inexorable pull of technological innovation, rather than in the push of dramatic policy reform.  Directly confronting the established system -- for example, by advocating for pay-for-performance measures for the entire education system rather than just the emerging digital-learning one -- will invite battles (which are likely to be lost) with interest groups that protect the system.

Online learning is a "disruptive innovation," Horn says.  As innovations -- such as the personal computer -- improve over time, "people gradually abandon their old solutions and adopt the disruptive innovations."  These dynamics are in play with online learning, as it gradually disrupts the century-old classroom system.

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee supports Education Next and several projects at both the Fordham Institute and the Hoover Institution.
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