Debunking the myths (and outright lies) about digital learning


Though digital learning is growing rapidly across the country, including here in Utah, many people have little to no interaction with it and so are unfamiliar with what it is and what it isn’t. This allows supporters of the status quo in education to spread various myths – and some outright lies – about digital learning. News reports purporting to “examine” online schools, while actually ignoring much of what makes up digital learning, only compound the problem.[pullquote]Digital learning…promises to change the way children learn.[/pullquote]

To understand digital learning, it helps first to have a basic definition of it. Digital learning is any form of learning that uses technology to give parents and children “some element of control over [the] time, place, path and/or pace [of their education].” Based on that definition, I’d like to debunk a few myths and lay out some facts about what digital learning is and what it is not. 

Myth: Digital learning is just a way to funnel public school funds to private, for-profit companies.

Fact: Most of Utah’s digital learning providers are either public school districts or public charter schools, not for-profit companies. Some private, for-profit companies sell curriculum materials or services to the dozen or so district and charter digital learning providers, but private, for-profit companies make a lot more money selling similar materials and services to brick-and-mortar public schools. In other words, private, for-profit companies reap the greatest profits from traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools, not digital learning. And they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Myth: Digital learning is publicly funded home schooling.

Fact: While digital learning can and does occur in a home environment (i.e., with the benefit of significantly increased parental involvement – the most important aspect of educational attainment), much of it occurs in public schools, both district and charter. For instance, a federal government survey recently reported that 55 percent of K-12 public school districts employ a form of digital learning called “distance education,” which refers to courses delivered using technology when the teacher is in a separate location from his/her students. Another growing trend among district and charter schools is “blended” digital learning, where digital learning occurs in a brick-and-mortar school. For instance, at Carpe Diem Charter School in Arizona, students use computer-assisted instruction to learn at a brick-and-mortar school building, while teachers in the building electronically monitor students’ progress and assist them with difficult concepts face-to-face, as needed.

Myth: The goal of digital learning is just to move children out of district public schools and into public charter schools.

Fact: The goal of digital learning is to improve education and academic outcomes for children. And as far as digital learning providers go, in fact, most publicly funded online schools in Utah (five) are run either by the state or local school districts. A few others (two, with a couple more to open soon) are charter schools. However, many more school districts have begun offering digital learning in response to the new Statewide Online Learning Program. Digital learning is about improving education for children, not about favoring one system over another.

Myth: Digital learning is a costly waste of taxpayer dollars that only takes money away from district public schools.

Fact: Again, most digital learning providers in Utah are public school districts, so it seems unlikely that digital learning is likely to create a drain on financial resources for school districts in the foreseeable future. Further, in terms of cost comparison, there have not been many estimates of how much digital learning costs relative to brick-and-mortar public schools. However, the available cost estimates suggest that current digital learning methods are probably more cost-effective than traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools. Further, as digital learning grows it is likely to create even greater cost efficiencies by adopting new, innovative technologies and ways of organizing public school staff (principals and teachers). In other words, digital learning holds great promise for increasing the “bang” for every taxpayer dollar spent on public education.

For example, Khan Academy is a digital learning provider that was recently profiled in The New York Times. This school, which uses innovative teaching methods, has chosen to offer all of its course materials online to anyone – free. The possibility of free, high-quality curriculum materials gives the public school system a great opportunity to decrease the cost of public education, and indeed some public schools have already begun incorporating Khan Academy’s free materials into their curriculum.

Myth: Digital learning can never work on a broad scale because computers cannot replace or replicate the face-to-face interaction that children need.

Fact: In digital learning, computers do not replace teachers – every digital-learning student has a teacher. However, digital learning does allow teachers to use computers in ways which allow them to focus their time on actually teaching children, rather than on mundane tasks such as keeping the attention of their class.

Further, as many full-time, online schools are proving, not every child needs a large amount of face-to-face interaction with a teacher to excel academically. And for those who do, “blended” digital learning promises to provide such opportunities. Some opponents of digital learning would have people believe that digital learning amounts to giving a child a computer, some pre-recorded lectures, and then wishing them luck as we throw them to the wolves. This is false.

Myth: Digital learning cannot work because children need socialization that they cannot get in a digital environment.

Fact: Concerning socialization, scholarly research has shown that digital learners in full-time, online schools “are either superior to or not significantly different than students enrolled in traditional public schools with respect to their socialization.” Why? Because parents know through common sense that their children need to socialize, and there are multitudes of ways outside of brick-and-mortar public schools for social opportunities for children, such as sports teams, religious activities, and, of course, just playing with friends. The idea that children cannot learn proper social skills outside of a brick-and-mortar public school setting has no grounding in reality, and is not supported by credible research or common sense.

In conclusion, digital learning is an innovative way of educating children and promises to change the way children learn. We live in a digital age, and it is time for public schools to catch up to the new realities of that age. “Change” does not mean simply substituting computers for teachers or abandoning brick-and-mortar schools. But it does mean adapting how we educate children (i.e., adults changing how they organize and teach in public schools) to the innovative potential provided by modern technology. If public education really is about the children, then we as adults can do no less.