GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson is wrong about online learning

(Back when Ben Carson was a leading GOP presidential candidate, he talked about education in an interview with Campbell Brown, and I drafted this blog post. Today Carson is no longer getting as much attention, but his views on education and online learning remain instructive for their implications about how educators and advocates talk about online learning.) Early in an interview with Campbell Brown, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson gets this question exactly right:

Q: “Is the school system failing or is it working?”

A: “Well it depends on your zip code”

But a bit later, when asked what the federal government can do, he shows that he doesn’t understand the details of online learning:

“There are computer programs that are available that for instance can look at the way a kid solves five algebra problems, recognize what the kid doesn’t know, can bring them up to speed, tutor them on that, which is the same thing a good algebra teacher can do. But a teacher can only do it for one student at a time, a computer program can do it for a whole class, a whole school, a whole city. So making that kind of technology available broadly can help us tremendously. Virtual classrooms, where you can take the very best teachers and put them in front of a million students instead of 30 students.” (This quote starts at about the 10:35 point in the video. Emphasis added and not in the original.)

Carson is wrong, for several reasons.

First, he is far overselling the capabilities of adaptive learning programs when he says that they are doing “the same thing a good algebra teacher can do.” He seems to imply that the adaptive learning program could operate without a teacher. No such program exists that has been shown to be successful at anything approaching scale.

Second, when he suggests that “virtual classrooms” can teach a million students at a time, the closest thing to what he is describing is a massively open online course (MOOC). But no MOOC has been successful with large numbers of K-12 students.

As far as I know, Ben Carson is the first presidential candidate to mention online learning in a fairly prominent setting—which increases the concern that his description is wrong. He’s almost certainly hearing and passing along ideas from his advisors, and to be fair plenty of sources are saying much the same as Carson. But they, like Carson, are wrong, and these incorrect descriptions of online learning set back the field and make more challenging the work of the educators who are using technology and teachers to improve student opportunities and outcomes.