New Book by Rossier Researcher Finds Flaws in K-12 Online Education

May 5, 2014
Photo of Patricia Burch

Dr. Patricia Burch

Many school districts are delving into digital education too quickly, according to a new book.

Digital education may be an innovative path forward for the American public schools system, but many of the existing virtual teaching programs have serious flaws, according to a new book by USC Rossier School of Education Professor Patricia Burch.

Equal Scrutiny: Privatization and Accountability in Digital Education, to be published this month by Harvard Education Press, looks at the pressures for public school districts across the country to buy digital services and products.

Private education contractors are providing more and more schools with digital education programs, leading to concerns about the quality of services, who is served and who is benefiting.

The signs of this surge are evident everywhere. This year $21 billion of the funds spent in K-12 schools will be for technology, 63 percent of districts report contracting with vendors to provide online courses and private investors are funding education companies at unprecedented rates.

The book, co-authored by Annalee Good of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, argues that digital learning has the power to create enormous opportunities for school districts to teach students in more effective and economical ways, if properly funded and effectively managed. However, the authors contend that many districts delving into digital education are moving too quickly into territory that is unfamiliar.

Quality, access and transparency

The authors cited the pressures on districts to adopt digital teaching and learning, even in the face of inadequate research on its effectiveness for all K-12 students.

Laws in several states now mandate that all public school students take at least one online course to graduate, and other national, state and local policies have created pressure for school districts to contract out digital education services. The authors investigated the impact of such policies on schools, teachers, students and their families.

The book is based on three years of inquiry into school districts across the United States that have begun to use private digital vendors for stand-alone courses, charter schools and tutoring. Burch and Good studied how digital education programs differed along three areas (curriculum, instruction, and data use and assessment) and how these elements can translate to key issues of quality, access and transparency.

In each case, the researchers discovered disparities in the quality of digital education programs, finding that students were better served when there was greater transparency in exactly what an instructional program would look like. In many cases, inadequate information on the role of the instructor, unrealistic requirements for Internet access and lack of clarity as to the role vendors play in program delivery proved to be obstacles.

As more public school districts move toward adoption of online, virtual or other forms of digital education, Burch and Good said that more research and greater transparency are necessary to prevent a considerable waste of resources and instructional opportunities.

The bottom line for school districts

According to Burch, disadvantaged communities face the biggest challenges when it comes to digital education, as they currently have limited access to learning technologies compared to wealthier communities, and the few programs that serve those communities have quality issues, she said.

“The digital education being sold to disadvantaged communities generally does not equate with expanded learning opportunities,” Burch said. “For example, a company may decide for reasons of cost not to have a live teacher, leaving children and their families without the supports they need to master content.”

The bottom line, Burch added, is that, despite the allure of digital education due to its potential for solving some of American public education’s most vexing problems, it would be best for the country to take a slower approach toward its adoption.

“Simply moving K-12 education online doesn’t alone solve enduring problems of unequal access and disparities within and across schools,” Burch said. “Going slower with digital education can mean moving smarter.”


Equal Scrutiny: Privatization and Accountability book coverRead the Article: Good, Burch Examine the Potential Dangers of Privatizing Digital Education