Can Online Learning and Common Core Co-Exist?

By Eric Wearne

Eric Wearne, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Recently I spoke at Georgia State University’s NET-Q Summer Institute, which focused on several aspects of the Common Core State Standards.  During the various breakout sessions, my co-panelists and I discussed several topics around the creation of the Common Core, including its practical impact on stakeholders, the use of assessments, and other issues. One aspect that gets probably too little coverage is the possible effect of the Common Core on technology and online learning.

The two concepts are different in kind: online learning is an approach or tactic, while the Common Core is a set of content standards.  Yet in some ways, online learning and the Common Core both attempt to address similar issues: both have the potential to improve outcomes for highly mobile students, and for students in isolated or sparsely populated areas (online learning by making physical place less relevant, and the Common Core by eliminating content gaps and redundancies across schools/systems/states).

But these two concepts also work at cross-purposes sometimes.  Online learning is still in a highly experimental stage, in which we are trying out different formats, methods, and content, rewarding and growing the most successful.  The Common Core puts a brake on experimentation with content, in order to focus on standardization at an ostensibly “higher” level than the status quo.

As with any new policy adoption, there are practical, everyday issues that will have to be addressed.  Some of these could have an impact on online education.  The Pioneer Institute, for example points out a few issues with the Common Core movement as it operates now, including:

  • An unclear governance structure (Who controls revisions to the standards? If we find some standards are irrelevant or detrimental to online learning, how do we change them?);
  • The potential for even more standardization due to common assessments (even if these tests are likely to be an upgrade over our current tests, how do we align instructional calendars, testing windows, and cut scores across states … and do we even want to?);
  • Unclear cost requirements, including new technology and teacher training (how much money will be required to implement the Common Core, and how much of this is money that schools would have spent upgrading technology anyway?)

One could possibly argue that having common standards and common assessments would do little to affect either online learning or school choice policies – that simply using a common curriculum has little to do with the structure of a school.

But how much room will online providers (and charter schools) have to use unique approaches and structures to serve their specific students in a Common Core environment in which their teaching and testing requirements are governed by an interstate consortium, and in which the U.S. Department of Education is increasingly active?  Online and charter schools have to follow state and federal rules now, but those tend to be explicit.  The Common Core’s ultimate boundaries remain unclear.

Can online learning and the Common Core co-exist?  Certainly, just as any other curriculum could co-exist in an online learning environment.  Online “learning” means very little if there isn’t a curriculum attached to it.

“Standards” in education as we understand them today have been in use for at least 20 years, and we are right to be disappointed with the results on student achievement overall.  The pace of improvement has been agonizingly slow.  The Common Core could possibly be an improvement, but it will certainly narrow the range of experimentation and states’ flexibility.

Technology has improved to the point where online approaches have started to show some promise; it would be a shame to put the brakes on just when things start to get interesting.  The Common Core’s “limiting principle” should be better defined.

(Eric Wearne is a Georgia Public Policy Foundation Senior Fellow and Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education.  Previously he was Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.)