opinion

History, Hype and Hope for Online Learning

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Starting with a blog post reprinted in the Washington Post, blogger Larry Cuban lays down a heavy, three-part critique of the "cheerleaders [who] continue to trumpet online learning as the 'disruptive innovation' that will replace regular schools." In the last post of his series, "Does Online Instruction Work?" Cuban argues that exhaustive studies on the effectiveness of online learning are few and far between, and the majority are "shoddy" and hampered by "serious design and methodological flaws."

We admit: we're skeptics ourselves of efficacy studies (especially ones produced by companies), many of which simply rely on A/B split tests that compare pre- and post-assessment scores. Factors such as parenting and socioeconomics are just as crucial to students' learning and performance in schools. We're hopeful that the ongoing work from institutions like SRI will help paint a clearer picture.

Cuban offers that "symbolic, political, and budgetary reasons carry far more weight in making policy decisions about online instruction than research findings." The push for online learning, he argues, is largely driven by the desire to score political and social capital for appearing to stay ahead of the technological curve.

Unfortunately, this observation, while argued with much conviction, also lacks the level of exhaustive support and research that he wishes to see for online learning. Presumptions about politics and social incentives may be just as hazardous as those for the efficacy of online learning.

Cuban's criticisms of the "disruptive innovation" hype caught the attention of Michael Horn, co-founder and director of the Clayton Christensen Institute (named after the Harvard business professor who coined that term). In his response, Horn agrees that Cuban's assessment of virtual learning's past shortcomings are on point, but argues that online technology has the opportunity to reinvent the learning model "to put in place policies that create the proper incentives."

As Horn writes: "The past is instructive, but it should help guide us forward, not hold us back."

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