(By Shamus Ian Fatzinger/ Fairfax County Times) (By Shamus Ian Fatzinger/ Fairfax County Times)

Online learning is our present and our future, or so many school reformers and entrepreneurs say. Here in the first of a few pieces on the subject is Larry Cuban, a high school social studies teacher for 14 years, a district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA), and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His new book is “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education.” This post appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban

For those familiar with past efforts to install new technologies in schools, the many claims for online instruction transforming traditional teaching and learning in K-12 public schools either cause snickers for their hyperbole or strike a flat note in their credibility.

Consider the following answer that Clayton Christensen, author of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Transform the Way the World Learns,” gave to this question posed to him by an interviewer: “Do you think that education is finally ready for the Internet?”

I absolutely do. I think that not only are we ready but adoption is occurring at a faster rate than we had thought… We believe that by the year 2019 half of all classes for grades K-12 will be taught online… The rise of online learning carries with it an unprecedented opportunity to transform the schooling system into a student-centric one that can affordably customize for different student needs by allowing all students to learn at their appropriate pace and path, thereby allowing each student to realize his or her fullest potential….


Such hype from academic gurus is unfortunate. They contribute to low credibility because of the history of exaggerated claims for earlier technologies (e.g., distance education, instructional television, and desktop computers). And they mask the complexity of online instruction. Moreover, the claims ignore differences among students who take online courses, how teachers deliver instruction, the quality of online teaching, assessments of student learning, and design of research studies.

Consider, for example, that students receiving online instruction span children of home-schoolers and those with disabilities who cannot attend school to students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate diploma program and Advanced Placement courses to those teenagers who have failed courses and sign up for credit recovery. And recently, there are now elementary schools that blend individual “learning labs” with regular classroom instruction. [i]

Web courses also differ in delivery. Some emanate from virtual schools with a curricular menu of software programs in different subjects and ones where teachers lecture and demonstrate lessons to thousands of students at one time; others are courses in which teachers hold online discussions with fifteen students in a section with periodic face-to-face contact and loads of email exchanges.

The quality of online instruction also varies. There are stars among instructors who relish the work, plan thoughtfully, and use the limited face-to-face interaction and discussion threads creatively. They offer many stories of student success. Most online teachers are hardly stars, however, yet soldier through their duties and complete assigned  tasks satisfactorily. While current technology permits online and offline discussions among students and between teacher and students, the nature of the setting nearly always results in short bursts of teacher telling, checking for understanding with multiple-choice questions, videos, YouTube segments, and bullet-point slides with students interacting later. The pedagogical epicenter of most online instruction is squarely within the teacher-centered tradition.

Then there are engaging software programs loaded with audio and video clips that take students point-by-point through carefully designed materials that can re-teach concepts and skills for students who answer questions inaccurately. For those students who master the content and sail through the quizzes, they can push ahead with advanced material.

Nor can one ignore the varied research and evaluation designs and methodologies used to assess online instruction or particulars devices (e.g., tablets, laptops, clickers)–whatever the new “new thing” is— to determine whether they have produced proficiency in knowledge and skills or gains in student test scores (or both).

Horse race-type studies — is online instruction better, the same as, or worse than traditional instruction? — have shown, time and again, to be flawed for not taking into consideration other factors that could explain proficiency (or lack thereof) and growth (or decline) in student achievement. In such studies, key factors as the teacher’s pedagogy, students’ socioeconomic status, instructional materials, and other variables are missing. None of the foregoing, however, has stopped (or will stop) evangelists for online instruction from gathering a grab bag of defect-filled studies claiming student achievement gains.

Regardless of the quality of research on new technologies, cheerleaders continue to trumpet online learning as the “disruptive innovation” that will replace regular schools. Advocates spread the gospel of blended schools using exaggerated claims to sprinkle over holes and cracks in the innovation.  Promoters of these innovations overestimate the power of their words and underestimate the facts of variation in students, how online instruction is delivered, teaching quality, and research designs. They attribute achievement gains (or losses) to online instruction while disregarding its diversity thus contributing to romantic myths about powerful technologies solving grave problems.  Claims about online learning revolutionizing teaching and student learning are, to put it charitably, just claims.

What hangs in the air over these claims are two key questions that policymakers too often leave unanswered. Explicit and public answers to these questions could replace unexamined assertions and myths with credible arguments and facts.

1. What are the pressing problems in K-12 schools to which virtual schooling are solutions?

2.  Does online instruction work?

I will answer these questions in subsequent posts.


[i] By online and blended learning I mean:

“[A] wide range of programs that use the Internet to provide instructional materials and facilitate interactions between teachers and students and in some cases among students as well. Online learning can be fully online, with all instruction taking place through the Internet, or online elements can be combined with face-to-face interactions in what is known as blended learning….”  This definition comes from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, “Understanding the Implications of Online Learning for Educational Productivity,” January 2012, p. v.

Blended learning, a combination of individual online instruction and whole or small group instruction in regular public school buildings has emerged recently in K-12, particularly in charter schools. Entrepreneurs, both for-profit and non-profit, and educators have developed various models of mixing online and direct classroom contact between teachers and students.