When most people talk about increasing choice in education, they think about parents and children having more choice when it comes to selecting which school to attend. Digital learning, however, is making it easier and easier for students to customize their learning experience by having choices at the course level. Course choice programs can expand access to high quality courses and actually strengthen traditional schools. Some states, realizing the potential benefits of the adaptability that course choice programs offer, have begun to embrace digital learning. States like Texas, Louisiana, and Minnesota have started implementing programs that offer their students a catalog of online courses that can complement their course load at brick and mortar schools.
While these online course choice programs have amazing potential to improve children’s education experiences, there will inevitably be challenges with such a nascent industry. Already policymakers are struggling with two key aspects of implementing these policies:
1) How do you ensure that you are paying the organizations providing these online courses a competitive price?
Right now states appear to be pulling numbers out of nowhere. In Texas the state cannot spend more than $400 for a course. In Louisiana some courses cost the state as much as $1,200 per student. Policymakers need a way to make sure that they aren’t pricing out the providers who could have the best courses. On the flipside, they should make sure that they aren’t paying more than they should be for any given course.
2) How do you pay providers in a way that encourages them to offer the highest quality courses possible?
The online education field is young, expanding rapidly, and full of untapped potential. How can states encourage innovation and high quality results while also holding course providers accountable?
For the last several months, a group of Stanford Public Policy students working with Digital Learning Now, have been thinking about these questions. After talking with Stanford economists, including Nobel Laureate Alvin Roth; state policy makers; and experts at the Department of Education and the White House, they think they’ve come up with an answer. Their solution focuses on how states choose the providers who are allowed to teach their students. It is a bidding process that reveals competitive prices while identifying high quality providers.
In the bidding process course providers are not only asked what price they expect to be paid for each course they teach. They also must decide how much of their payment they are willing to have tied to quality metrics identified by the state. The providers will only receive this incentive portion of their payment if the academic performance of their students is reaching the bar that the state has set. While states may decide to focus on different criteria for evaluation (i.e. proficiency, growth, completion, student surveys, etc.) this payment system will allow them to hold providers accountable for quality.
As state policy makers continue to tackle the issues surrounding course choice and online learning, they will need to address these issues of pricing and quality. Policies like the one developed by these students offer education policymakers an adaptable model focused on quality, affordability, and accountability. This adaptability is key. We do not know what the rapidly evolving world of online education will look like in the next three years, let alone the next five or ten. But with flexible, forward thinking models like this, we can be well prepared to make sure our students are receiving the best educations they can.
Scott Ferron, Paige Gonye, Adeeb Sahar, and Kyle Vandenberg are seniors in the Stanford University Public Policy Program. To learn more about their policy proposal, read their full report here.