The regulatory focus on digital content

An earlier post reported on the discussion over on the e-Literate blog  regarding ways in which a US Department of Education audit of Western Governors University showed the auditors to be hyper-focused on an overly literal interpretation of rules, at the expense of a university’s innovative practices.

That same blog post makes a point that is highly relevant to the regulatory mechanisms governing K-12 digital learning:

The audit determination “was entirely based on course design materials - think syllabus and course outlines. The [Department] did not look at interactions arising during the course of actual course work, just whether there were pre-defined webinars, meetings, and student-instructor interactions…. These views essentially reject… the broader movement of faculty from "sage on the stage to guide on the side". Instructors, from the [Department’s] view, must provide instruction on course content and interactions must be pre-planned in the course design materials, at least for online courses.”

An analogous situation exists in K-12 online learning.

Experienced educators know that successful and scalable online learning requires substantial teacher interaction with students. But K-12 quality assurance mechanisms are based heavily on inputs, such as course content standards. This leads to extensive reviews of digital course content, and the reviews often focus too much on the text, graphics, assessments, etc., and not enough on the interaction that should occur between the teacher and student. Such interactions are based on student needs, vary greatly, take place during the course, and therefore cannot easily be evaluated ahead of time.

A good teacher can produce high rates of student success even with mediocre instructional materials. Alternatively, courses with well thought out instructional design and high production values are better than the alternative, but if these are used by a poor teacher, then student outcomes are likely to be mediocre. Students need the encouragement and assistance of a teacher or mentor more than they need fancy instructional materials.

But the system is based on inputs, and it’s far easier to review course materials than it is to review instruction, so that’s where the focus remains.