A multi-state network for course choice?

Among the most thought provoking of the recommendations in the recent course choice/access report published by Digital Learning Now (DLN) is the call for creation of a multi-state network for course choice. According to DLN, “The effort can help states establish robust quality control measures for online courses and providers, expand the number of quality online course options available to students (particularly those who have been underserved), and take advantage of efficiencies of scale to lower costs of initial authorization.” This recommendation is relevant not only to course choice states, but also to other states that have a required online course approval process. Approval processes exist in most course choice states, but required approvals of online courses and/or providers exist in many other states as well.

The recommendation to create a multi-state network for course choice is provocative for several reasons:

  1. It addresses a sizeable existing inefficiency. Most states that review online courses use either the iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Courses or the standards developed by Quality Matters (which are based on the iNACOL standards), usually with some modest state-specific modifications. States that have adopted the Common Core State Standards are using these standards for core subjects. Therefore states that have adopted Common Core are essentially conducting duplicate reviews, at significant cost to each state and each provider.
  2. If states adhered to common reviews, they could do more reviews, or do them more often, at the same cost. Most states that have required online course reviews are not able to do as many as they would like, or as often.
  3. Creating a multi-state market would allow providers to invest more heavily in a wider range of courses. Because providers have to get course approvals in many states, they have a strong incentive to focus on core courses and the electives that attract the most students. A multi-state approval process would likely lead to a significant expansion of online courses available for many students.
  4. But cooperation across states in an area such as course quality is rare at best, and perhaps non-existent. As logical as the idea of a multi-state network is, it goes up against a long history of state and local control of education. The recent political skirmishes over Common Core and the national assessment consortia suggest that the focus on the state and local level has not changed much.

The report gives a couple of examples of inter-state cooperation (see Appendix A: Background on Interstate Reciprocity Systems), but Keeping Pace research suggests that the account of teacher reciprocity is not an especially good example.

Still, the recommendation is stimulating, and even if a large multi-state course choice program isn’t feasible, perhaps a few states can agree on a common way to review online courses.