On the merits of course reviews, and the under-emphasis on teaching and technology compared to content

Brian Bridges of the California Learning Resources Network (CLRN) posted a comment in response to a recent blog post. Brian and CLRN are former Keeping Pace sponsors, and I admire and value the work CLRN has done in California. That doesn’t mean, however, that we always agree. Here is what I wrote in response to the NEPC report recommendation that “Policymakers should require high-quality curricula, aligned with applicable state and district standards, and monitor changes to digital content.”

“I’m on the fence about this recommendation because, arguably, if policymakers get the outcomes right then we shouldn’t have to worry about the inputs. But in the absence of good outcomes measures, some review of curriculum by the state might be appropriate. The counter-argument is that content review is a district or school role, not a state role.”

Brian’s response contains two main critiques. The first is that an evaluation of outcomes is not sufficient, and he finds a parallel in movies, suggesting that the movies that generate the highest box office receipts are not the best, although by that measure of outcomes those (often bad) movies would be considered the best. Second, speaking to my questioning whether content review should be a state role or a local responsibility, he writes “course review at the state level is a cost-effective process that compares online courseware to both content standards . . . and to iNACOL’s Standards for Quality Online Courses.”

Brian is a spirited defender of the course reviews that CLRN has done, and the way that CLRN has become a critical voice for quality and accountability in California. My first thought in response to his comment was that perhaps he missed my opening line that I was “on the fence” about the NEPC recommendation, because he seems to focus mostly on the portion of my remarks that question the value of state reviews.

To be clear, I would never suggest that CLRN should not be playing the role that it is in California. The state suffers from a lack of effective leadership around online and blended learning at the state level (despite the efforts of a few people and organizations, and with some districts such as Riverside and San Diego stepping up and playing important roles). CLRN helps fill the gap, and has played a critical and evolving role in how online courses are treated by the University of California system. Course reviews in California, and in some other states, make sense given the circumstances unique to those states.

But saying that one state-level organization is filling a valuable niche with course reviews does not mean that I am sure that all other states should go beyond the role that CLRN plays by requiring that any online course provider first be state-approved. Among the reasons why are:

1. Course reviews have the potential to overemphasize online content for regulatory scrutiny, while ignoring teaching and technology systems.

Instruction in online and blended courses is accomplished via a combination of online content, teachers (whether online or in person), and technology systems. In most online courses offered by state virtual schools, in many blended schools, and arguably in most online and blended courses, the most important of the three is the teacher. Of course, all three elements work together, as technology that allows for adaptive learning may also provide the teacher with the data to personalize instruction. But if you look at the ways that states consider regulating online courses, the most common is via content reviews; teaching is secondary and technology is rarely considered.

I believe (as a hunch, without much evidence) that the reason for this is that online content can be reviewed relatively easily compared to the other instructional elements. Teaching can be reviewed by school administrators, but not in any cost-effective way by regulators or policymakers. And those policymakers often do not have the depth of knowledge to be able to truly compare the technology systems (even if we thought they should).

Is the solution to the overemphasis on content relative to the other elements to scrutinize the others more, or to scrutinize content less? I suspect Brian would say all should be reviewed. But I’m not sure that it can be done effectively without greatly slowing innovation.

2. CLRN plays an advisory role that is powerful for reasons specific to California, but other states go farther by requiring that all online course providers (and/or courses) be approved.

There is a big difference between CLRN’s advisory role, which helps schools and programs make smart choices, and a state requirement that all online course providers must be approved before offering their content in a state. As Brian says “Rather than creating reviews that recommend one course over another, presenting factual information about both the depth and the degree to which courses teach the content standards, as well as how courses align to online course criteria, provides school districts with data that allows them to make informed purchasing decisions.”

CLRN’s role, as Brian describes it, is not exactly in line with the NEPC recommendation that I questioned. It is more valuable and less burdensome.

3. In other fields, regulations have been used by large players to limit competition

Large companies in heavily regulated fields do two things to limit competition, and by extension innovation. They sometimes allow or even encourage regulatory costs that are easier for a large company to pay than a small company or a start-up, limiting new entrants into the field. Second, they often “capture” the regulatory agency by helping to craft regulations that assist the incumbent players, again limiting small-scale innovators.

Evergreen is fortunate to have as clients some of the largest companies offering online courses, several of which are (in our view) among the highest quality curriculum providers. But we also value some very small companies that are filling niches in creative and critical ways. We would not want to see those small companies squeezed by the regulations that are intended to protect students, but instead protect incumbent providers.

I remain “on the fence” about the role of course review requirements as a matter of state policy, while also strongly supporting CLRN’s role in California.