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“Just Missing” Online Learning Projections

In a 2008 book, three of the most insightful and innovative people I know in education wrote, “by 2019, about 50 percent of high school courses will be delivered online.”

Or as Maxwell Smart might say if “Get Smart” were somehow in its 54th season on NBC, “Missed by that much.”

The book was Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.  The three truly impressive authors (check them out online) were Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Minnesota’s Curtis W. Johnson.  Three pages after their projection that about half of high school courses across the country this year would be “delivered online,” they similarly wrote that teachers would increasingly function “as one-on-one tutors rather than rather than teaching monolithically – and computer-based and student-centric learning will enable a teacher to oversee the work of more students.”

Meaning, the “cost per students per course over the next 10 years is likely to decline by 15 percent for each doubling of volume, so that the cost will be one-third of today’s [2008] costs, and the courses will be much better.”

Cue Agent 86: “Missed by that much” again.

I hadn’t looked at Disrupting Class for several years before opening it up last week thinking it might have a paragraph or passage spotlighting the great and perpetual difficulties of changing large bureaucracies, especially large (or not-so-large) education ones.  And there they were, on pages 98 and 102, the excerpts above.  My first thought was to write a simple blog that quickly restated the straightforward point I just suggested: how significantly improving American education is very heavy lifting.

But then I thought it only cricket to tell Curt Johnson, who’s an old friend, what I had in mind, knowing deep down he would complicate my life with plausible explanations as to why the book’s projections were so off.  We talked by phone, after which I asked him to briefly embellish his thoughts in writing.  Here are portions of two of his main points.

  • “The software industry, good as it is, has not been as good as it started out in creating and evolving forms of online alternatives to conventional courses. I do not know why.  Only that the early excitement about the wave of courseware that was emerging in the years immediately following the book’s 2008 publication seems to have waned.  Perhaps the better products are there but more difficult to find because of a proliferation of offerings in the industry.  I don’t know.”
  • “The [education] ‘industry’ continues to be very resistant to fundamental change. We want schooling to be better but not very different from what we think of in our minds as ‘real school.’  This concept has hardened to the point that we’ve gone through a lengthy wave of thinking that performance was the national problem, not design; the truth is, though, that the system that remains dominant was never designed to educate everyone. . . . Only personalizing the learning experience can close [achievement and attainment] gaps; and this level of individualizing schooling is now both possible and affordable for the first time ever.”

Curt finished off by arguing, “One might think that changing the way we do schooling was a matter of urgency.  But for most policymakers it is not.  Hence change, even if inevitable, is slow.”

I don’t disagree with any of this, as I excitedly wrote myself, in 2012, about how, “Education can be customized as never before because of ongoing technological advances.  This is a very big deal,” I announced, in a modestly titled essay, “Online Learning: A Literal New World of Possibilities for Minnesota K-12 Education.”

Still, when talking about education reform, I’m near-certain to note that if our aim, in fact, is to better serve all students, it’s critical that parental choice programs include private schools, very much including religious ones.  This imperative doesn’t necessarily have anything special to do with digital learning, but it’s essential nonetheless.  And there’s gold-standard research, accentuated by simple fairness, to prove it.

An electronic postscript: How did non-electronic me wind up writing a paper about digital education?  A foundation commissioned me to write it, and given the contribution they were making to the Center, there was no way I was going to say no.  Some people at the time thought the assignment a strange fit, but if I do say so, the paper turned out quite well and was well-received in St. Paul.

But just like real experts, I also showed ‘em how I could miss by barely that much, too.

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