Is mandating online learning good policy?

Michael Horn

An increasing number of advocates for online learning have come out in favor of mandating that states require students take at least one college- or career-prep course online to earn a high school diploma. Digital Learning Now!, a national campaign chaired by former Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise to advance policies to create a high quality digital learning environment for each student–and where I serve as a “Digital Luminary,” is on board as well.

States are taking notice. Michigan jumped in first with an online-learning requirement for graduation 5 years ago, and Alabama quickly followed suit. In the last year, Florida and Idaho have jumped on board as well, and districts, such as Tennessee’s Putnam County schools, have adopted an online-learning graduation requirement, too.

But is an online-learning requirement a good idea? For someone who advocates for a transformed student-centric education system powered by digital learning, you might think my quick answer would be an emphatic yes, but I’m not so sure.

I’ve never been bullish on mandates. As a general rule, they tend to distort markets and sectors, have unintended consequences down the line at best and immediately at worst, and lock in ways of doing things at the expense of innovation.

My overriding concern has been to see a student-centric system emerge that can flexibly and affordably respond to different student needs so that students can realize their fullest human potential. Digital learning, I argue, provides the platform to do this at scale, but in many cases, students may learn better offline, and a system powered by digital learning should be able to accommodate that. The purpose should never be technology for technology’s sake.

As Katherine Mackey and I have written, the focus from a policy perspective should ultimately be on student outcomes, not the inputs to get there. Focusing on inputs has the effect of locking a system into a set way of doing things and inhibiting innovation; focusing on outcomes, on the other hand, encourages continuous improvement against a set of overall goals and can unlock a path toward the creation of a high-quality student-centric system.

One argument though in favor of an online-learning graduation requirement is actually from an outcomes perspective that has some merit. The outcome from taking an online course—gaining the skills to succeed in a digital environment and perhaps become more self-driven—is valuable in a world in which postsecondary education and work-force training are increasingly done online and lifelong learning is critical to people’s lifetime success.

A question to ask perhaps is if this is the right way to seek those outcomes? Can we require that students develop these skills but leave open the possibility that there may be other ways to acquire these? I’m on the fence.

In many ways, an online learning mandate appears to be yet another input-based requirement in a system already overburdened with mandates—and in conflict with the very spirit of digital learning. If the purpose of this mandate is simply to bolster online learning for its own sake out of a belief that this is the only way to break the current factory-model system, I think that’s a mistake.

As Fordham’s Education Gadfly recently wrote, “Supporters of such mandates often claim that learning how to take an online course is itself a critical skill to build. But if the courses are well-designed (like, say, your iPhone), mastering the experience should be a no-brainer.” To this I might add that given Digital Learning Now!’s recommendation that dollars follow students to the online course of their choice and not the district’s, if the experience is so important or compelling, won’t students naturally flock to online learning?

Michael Horn is the cofounder of Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in the social sector. He is  also the author of several publications and articles, including the book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

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POSTED BY Michael Horn ON December 15, 2011

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Dear Michael
It is really great to find
on the roads of ONLINE HE .
I have been advocating to mandate online for the last 15 years .
Now there are 20 million HE students.
If every student takes only 1 online course that creates 10% that is 2 million spaces in the colleges of USA .
If every student takes at least 2 online courses that creates 4 million spaces in colleges . That would give ( instead of 0.15 x 20 mil = 3 million graduates ) 0.15 x 22 mill = 3.3 million graduates

But my conditions :
1.- Develope the best online courses which are deserved by USA students. Cost per online is $ 500,000 . Do not attempt to spend less than that . Bring together the best mathematicians even to develop a simple algebra . Best economists from Harvard and Yale for an Introduction to Economic 101 course. Share 1 online course by all other colleges in the USA .
Have that course taken by 1-2 million students . Then development course is nill .
Have online instructors keep contact 24 hours a day sometime live . Let instructors know that those students are human beings and they need special attentions . Talk to them by email one by one . Put your nice picture on the web. Share your family with your students . Let them hear your voice time to time .
Just do not neglet them
f2f teachers neglect them a lot . You, don’t do that .
2.- Existing online courses are very bad. Get help from PennState and Sloan C Foundations from the ones you know they are best .
3.- Allow transfer of credits among colleges freely .
4.- Look for the business talent of University of Phoenix but do not do what they do . Just take lessons .
5.- Ask for my help which is free .
6.- Look up many free online courses by MIT, Harvard, Yale, Stanford at

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