Invest in technology that works

Jay Mathews over at the Washington Post thinks that Online Courses May Make Graduation Too Easy. He may be right, he may be wrong, but as the Center’s report on credit recovery programs found, unfortunately, we just don’t know. There just isn’t any research out there to determine if providing online courses to students who are behind in the credits they need to graduate will improve their chances to earn a high school diploma. And right now, there is a push to expand such programs even though there is no evidence that they work.

The same can be said for other forms of online learning such as virtual charter schools. As the Center’s upcoming report on online learning will show, there is  little if any evidence that students are well served completing their education by sitting in front of a computer instead of inside a traditional classroom. While the rhetoric surrounding online learning sounds exciting and innovative, such as the prospect of students being able to work at their own pace or gaining “21st century skills,” we just don’t know if the actual impact matches the rhetoric.

One has to wonder: are students who have already fallen behind better served by working at their own pace? Will watching some lessons on a laptop create 21st century skills?

Policymakers should keep these questions in mind when considering expanding online learning in these times of extremely tight budgets. Certainly, technology can and should be used to enhance education. But blindly throwing money at anything technology-related is not the way to go in education, just as blindly investing in anything ‘dot com’ was not the way to go in the late 1990’s.

Policymakers should take a lesson from the irrational exuberance of the “dot com” craze and not go all-in in everything online learning. Instead, they should invest in those online learning tools that actually work. Doing so will both better serve students and taxpayers. – Jim Hull

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