Packed Virtual Classrooms

Later today, Apple will unveil its plans for digital textbooks.

Steve Jobs described textbooks as an '$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction', in conversations with his biographer Walter Isaacson.

Given how much dead tree weight students have to carry around, and how expensive textbooks have become, this is an area ripe for a solution. But as Apple lays out its plans for capturing some of the profits to be had from education, likely with an innovative technology based solution, corporate education reformers have set their sights on using technology to capture profits in an altogether different way.

The Fordham Foundation recently released a paper titled " Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning, A Working Paper Series from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The piece begins

Online learning, in its many shapes and sizes, is quickly becoming a typical part of the classroom experience for many of our nation’s K-12 students. As it grows, educators and policymakers across the country are beginning to ask the question: What does online learning cost? While the answer to this question is a key starting point, by itself it has limited value. Of course there are cheaper ways to teach students. The key question that will eventually have to be addressed is: Can online learning be better and less expensive

At that point the paper descends into the usual rote corporate ed stuff, using anecdote to try to capture the costs and quality of virtual education. The total lack of innovative thought is captured in their first graph.

You will clearly note that it is not technology driving the savings, but instead the slashing of spending on educators. The entire difference between a traditional model and virtual model is in the category of faculty and admin expenditures. Stephen Dyer, at his new blog "10th Period", points out that actual e-school spending in Ohio follows this exact model

Over at Innovation Ohio, I helped write and research a report that pointed out Ohio pays these major eSchool operators enough money for them to provide 15:1 student:teacher ratios, $2,000 laptops and still clear about 30% profit.

However, they don't do that. On average, they have 37:1 student:teacher ratios. Ohio Virtual Academy (run by the infamous, national for-profit K-12, Inc.) has a student:teacher ratio of 51:1, if you can believe it. Anyway, of the $183 million Ohio's taxpayers sent to these eSchools last school year, the schools spent a grand total of $27.5 million on teacher salaries, or about 15% of its money.

E-schooling as envisaged by corporate education reformers doesn't rely upon any technological innovation as a means to deliver high quality education, they use the virtual nature of the model to obfuscate the fact that class sizes can become huge. It's hard for a parent to know their child is crammed in to a packed class with 50 other students if he is sat alone in his bedroom. What you don't see, won't hurt, right?

It's never explained how a teacher can deliver quality to such large classes, in a situation where the virtual nature of the classes already make it naturally more difficult and challenged.

We know from facts certain that Ohio's e-schools are appallingly bad. Even the Fordham Foundation itself found e-school to be terrible

Perhaps before we even begin to consider cost, we ought to sort out the very serious problems we have with quality. What does it matter how cheap something is, if it is not fit for purpose? One might even argue, with tongue not so firmly planted in the cheek that Ohio's e-schools are breaking consumer laws

In common law jurisdictions, an implied warranty is a contract law term for certain assurances that are presumed to be made in the sale of products or real property, due to the circumstances of the sale. These assurances are characterized as warranties irrespective of whether the seller has expressly promised them orally or in writing. They include an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, an implied warranty of merchantability for products, implied warranty of workmanlike quality for services, and an implied warranty of habitability for a home.