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Given the rapid growth in digital learning, how can we ensure that these new approaches to teaching and learning are of high quality?

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute tackles that question in a paper released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He envisions a complex future for digital learning, where schools pull in lessons from numerous providers, each of which might cover just a small part of the overall curriculum. In some cases, schools could even allow parents to choose among multiple providers, Hess writes in “Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches.”

With such potential variety, how can we ensure that all providers are good? It won’t be easy, Hess says, but there are three main tools we can use:

Regulation: Digital-education providers can be required to prove that their instructors have certain credentials or that the online courses they offer are truly rigorous. To avoid “charlatans,” Hess says, providers could also be required to undergo financial audits.

Accountability: This area presents some of the greatest challenges. State assessments aren’t going to be useful here because they aren’t fine-grained enough, Hess says. “What’s needed,” he writes, “is something more granular and more reflective of the unbundled vision of virtual schooling.” Students should be assessed frequently on targeted topics to prove they are mastering the material and to show how much they have learned from a specific digital-learning provider. This won’t be easy, as these kinds of tests aren’t common now.

Market-based controls: Allowing parents to choose among providers will help weed out bad providers. The key here, Hess says, will be to have metrics by which parents can compare providers, including things like ratings and evaluations by experts—and even possibly crowd-sourced reviews of the providers, à la Amazon or eBay.

Each of the tools won’t by itself be enough, so we need to create a blend of all three to ensure quality, Hess says.

“A formidable task? Surely; because it is one that will ultimately determine whether the advent of digital learning revolutionizes American education or becomes just another layer of slate strapped to the roof of the nineteenth-century schoolhouse,” Hess writes.

Read the full report—the first in a series of six, to be released in the coming months—here.

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