If we want to open up public education to new providers and forms of learning, the fundamental challenges are to ensure both quality and academic integrity. And virtual education gives us an opportunity for a new approach that puts effectiveness and student outcomes at its center.
One idea to ensure quality virtual learning, from Brookings, (see Spurring Innovation Through Education: Four Ideas) is to “accredit online education providers so they can compete with traditional schools across district and state lines.” But, while offering students more access to online courses is great, accreditation is a terrible strategy to ensure quality.
BYU Independent Study, known to college sports fans as the place where Michael Oher and others went to quickly get eligible for NCAA athletics, proudly highlights its accreditation seals. It even continues to boast of its accredited status on the same page it informs students that the NCAA will no longer accept BYU Independent Study course credits. And, as the recent Frontline special College, Inc. showed, accreditation is increasingly bought and sold as a commodity by investors looking to gain instant access to federal student loan funding.
Here’s a different approach: If you want public funding, you’ve got to show results. Let new providers into the system — at the course level — but pay them on a performance basis, instead of attendance (this is how publicly-run Florida Virtual School, the country’s largest program, is funded). You only get public funds when a student succeeds and passes the course. As an incentive to serve all students, funding is weighted for disadvantaged and special needs students. And, since providers are putting their funds at risk and no longer getting a guaranteed amount of funding based on enrollment, the amount offered is slightly larger*.
Overall this is a better public investment because we are only paying for what works. More importantly, it begins to drive the market towards the most effective offerings — away from drill and kill software or programs offering low costs but little student/teacher interaction.
Now, here’s the key part: we need to ensure that students have actually learned and avoid the financial incentive for providers to just pass students along. But, this is where we can get creative and actually begin to put our investments in data systems to use.
Four outcome-focused ways to solve this problem:
1. End of Course Tests: Where possible, use end-of-course tests or other comparable, objective measures that are already in place. But ensure that the administration of these tests is designed to accommodate a new, much more flexible world of schooling — for instance, by offering multiple administrations throughout the school year and moving to online formats.
2. Course Sequence Performance: Where possible, especially in math, use data systems to track how students do in the next course sequence.
3. Trust But Verify: Many courses will not have end-of-course tests or appropriate course sequence data. Taking advantage of the online environment, providers would be required to digitally capture and store student work, discussions, products, and actual test performances. Providers would be subject to periodic audits, with severe penalties imposed if there was a mismatch between student work/performance and course passage. Moreover, where possible without individually identifying students, work would be made public so that there would be a more transparent gauge on what students could actually do if they passed the course.**
4. Ticket out of Remediation: Finally, here’s my favorite idea, and it hits on one of the most pressing barriers to college completion: remediation. If higher education wants to play, start in the bridge and transition courses, particularly in math, that are the gateways out of remediation. If a student passes your courses, then that means something — the school or ideally, system, must certify him/her eligible for credit-bearing work. Moreover, the higher education institution must keep data and demonstrate that those students perform on par in the next credit-bearing course sequence.
Which providers — public, nonprofit, or private — are willing to take this deal?
*Of course you also do the upfront work to ensure that the provider is reputable, has good processes and a plan in place. But don’t make the mistake of accreditation by forcing new virtual providers to fit into arbitrary constraints around seat time, class size, instructional method, etc.
**There are subjective judgments made here and the audit triggering process would have to be shielded from political abuse.