The advances in virtual learning have been so rapid that many of its strongest believers think that it could be the answer to the problems that have been plaguing education for decades. Katherine Mangu-Ward writes that more than $1 billion in investment went into the sector last year, and among the education superstars that have put their skills towards evangelizing it is former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former NYC public schools head Joel Klein.
Yet like any nascent industry, virtual learning faces risks as it grows — and those risks include over-regulation and the attempt by teachers unions to assert the same type of control they have held over the traditional education system.
Mangu-Ward hopes that technology can remake the education landscape the same way it has remade the world other industries it touched. As examples she cites the way that vendors like Amazon and Apple have revolutionized shopping and personal communication over the last ten years.
However, the landscape is is also littered with failures like Kazoo, Pets.com and FullTiltPoker – the latter being the most significant example because it was killed not because of faulty business plan or an unfriendly marketplace, but because of over-regulation and government pressure. Is virtual learning headed for a similar future?
At the state level, a mishmash of laws and regulations means that battles to make room for online schooling will have to be fought over and over. Long-standing rules requiring that students sit in desks looking at a teacher for a certain number of hours a day—so-called seat time and line of sight requirements—could kill online learning in the cradle. Requirements for specific teacher-student ratios are tough to translate in a world where a single school day might have a student chatting with a friendly avatar online, getting tech support from an in-person teacher’s aide, and emailing with a subject-specific tutor, all while having her tests graded by a team of data-center workers in India.
While online education has its supporters, teachers union such as the National Education Association spent $24 million just last year battling various school choice initiatives, including measures aimed at growing online and virtual learning.
As Mangu-Ward points out, their stand on online charters isn’t exactly ambiguous – they’re very much against it. If given the power, they would choke what could prove to be the biggest revolution in education in history before it had a chance to grow.
Truly amazing new products have transformative power. And competing with free isn’t impossible. But online education entrepreneurs looking to break into the K–12 market will have to do much more to come up with a product that’s a little better than what’s already out there. They have to come up with something truly new and mind-blowing, because to survive they’re going to have to short-circuit, bypass, or rewire the entire education bureaucracy. Good luck with that.