Digital learning and homeschooling during—and after—the crisis

April 17, 2020

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

Digital learning and homeschooling have hit K-12 education like—well, like a pandemic. As in so many other sectors, from politics to business to the movies, people are asking to what extent things can ever return to normal from the drastic changes imposed by our public health emergency. Now that millions of families are experiencing digital learning and homeschooling, at least in a way, will these alternatives come out stronger on the other side of the crisis?

I have to admit, some really amazing things are happening. Public schools have switched to digital learning en masse, with parents called into service as homeschool educators. Digital K-12 schooling, long the highly controversial province of radical education reformers, is the new black. Oklahoma’s largest virtual charter-school organization, EPIC Charter Schools, even offered free training to teachers and schools in traditional school districts. Despite their rhetoric about how “everyone in public education must come together,” it’s a little like watching Nixon sell grain to the Soviets.

“Entrenched interests will not welcome digital learning any more after the crisis than they did before it.”

At the same time, the digital learning and homeschooling we’re getting now is not representative of digital learning or homeschooling generally. They’re the emergency substitute. Since the crisis began, my daughter’s digital assignments have generally consisted of busywork—and haven’t taken up nearly a full school day’s worth of time. At the university where I work, faculty members (not the most tech-savvy segment of the population, Lord bless them) struggled mightily to master the online technology.

Nobody’s to blame for this, of course. If I had to reinvent everything I work on overnight, I’m sure it wouldn’t be pretty. But it does raise questions about whether the impression people are going to come away with will be good for digital learning in the long term.

Wishful Thinking
There’s a lot of wishful thinking going around—on both sides—with questions like this. People who have always felt that America’s political and economic systems are fundamentally illegitimate are convinced things will never be the same again, while people who were perfectly happy with the old ways are convinced the status quo ante will be restored overnight as soon as health authorities give the all-clear. People who love blockbuster movie franchises are looking forward to having their superheroes and spaceships back in summer 2021, while people who accuse Hollywood of creative bankruptcy gloat over movie theater chains’ financial bankruptcy.

Let’s try to get beyond the wishful thinking and take our bearings. Ten years ago or so, there was a huge boom in digital-learning techno-futurism. Khan Academy, founded in 2008, was—everyone said it—going to revolutionize schooling overnight. Digital charter schools were not just the future of K-12, they were its short-term future. The old forms of education were a “bubble” ready to burst.

Today, we can see that the edu-futurists—Matt Ladner dubbed them The Cool Kids—were right about the direction, but wrong about the scope. Or, if you prefer, you can say they were wrong about the timing; perhaps technology really will revolutionize the whole education landscape, but if so, it didn’t do it on the timetable The Cool Kids predicted.

Technology is successfully bringing education to people in new ways. My daughter’s school has told us they’re looking at switching over to using Khan Academy videos, and I’m delighted to hear it. In the last decade, charter schools have taken on the surprisingly unglamorous task of hammering out new models of education that use digital learning, and some of those are turning out well.

But building the future turns out to be a lot harder than it looks, especially when it comes to something as fraught with personal significance as education. Models that explain how people behave when they buy copper wire—“the market is a huge bubble right now, it’s about to burst”—turn out not to explain how people behave when it comes to the rearing of their children. Techno-futurists have it all backwards. They never seem to learn that human beings are not a technology they can use to realize the promise of the future; technology is a future we can use to realize the promise of human beings.

Hybrid models are emerging, in both K-12 and higher ed, that are less revolutionary but more promising than the original big dreams of The Cool Kids. These models take seriously the human need for relationship and community that are at the heart of education. They also leverage the capacity of technological innovation to serve that need in new ways.

Another challenge for digital learning that will still be there on the other side of the crisis is the opposition of entrenched interests. Given the enormous importance of digital learning during the crisis, it was disappointing that the Oklahoma State Department of Education refused for a long time to exempt digital schools from the state’s mandatory shutdown. Entrenched interests will not welcome digital learning any more after the crisis than they did before it—and predictions of the imminent demise of those interests in the face of dramatic new events have proved overconfident for generations.

What about homeschooling? This is not a new model of education but an old one—indeed, the oldest one. Yet homeschoolers have also long embraced the use of digital learning, using it as a tool for their more traditional vision of what education is. The appeal of homeschooling has always been “let’s go back to the future.” Is it a future whose time has come?

Homeschool advocates, like EPIC Charter Schools, have been smart about reaching out to help those who are struggling to work within the new reality. Prominent homeschoolers like Bethany Mandel have published introductory tips and lessons on how to handle the challenges of guiding your child through education at home, on a daily basis. This makes a stark contrast to some homeschooling critics, whose arrogant comments about how today’s children will be disadvantaged by their homeschooling experience have exposed the anti-parent attitude inherent in their position.

Homeschooling has always tended to produce high-performing students. Few results are more consistent in the empirical literature. However, without a relevant control group, we are unable to perform even the most rudimentary empirical analysis to determine whether these high outcomes are the result of homeschooling as such, rather than byproducts of factors such as the demographics of homeschooling families. In other words, we have no scientific information—not even guesswork—about whether homeschooling would do as well for the people who don’t currently use it as it does for the people who currently do. Unfortunately, the present crisis doesn’t much alleviate that limitation.

How will homeschooling come out of the crisis? It’s hard to believe there won’t be more public sympathy for it, now that parents have looked in the closet and seen for themselves that the Boogeyman doesn’t live in there. That sympathy from personal experience may serve homeschoolers well in future battles over state regulation of their educational practice.

On the other hand, it’s also hard to believe that significant numbers of parents who have built the whole structure of their childrearing around institutionalized schooling will suddenly reverse course. Most people just do not have that high a level of risk tolerance when it comes to childrearing. This is not like asking people to abandon their long-cherished conventions in things like the size and functions of their phone.

Yes, it’s true that people typically accept institutional schooling without deliberative reflection, as a social default. It is the mode pressed upon people by government and culture. But social structures don’t become a society’s “default” unless they are profoundly plausible to the people of that society for some important reason. Institutional schooling was not imposed upon American society by some kind of totalitarian regime. Homeschooling is the right choice for some, and perhaps the right choice for more than choose it now. But radicals who view institutional schooling as a false consciousness that everyone will suddenly wake up and realize they never really believed in are a little like the “heteronormativity” theorists who think people are only attracted to the opposite sex because society programs them that way.

I think it’s likely digital learning and homeschooling will gain marginal advantages from widespread experience of their methods. But I don’t expect radical changes to the landscape of education in the short or even medium term as a result. Education policy remains political, and for all the changes we’ve been through, politics remains more or less what it was.

On December 26, 1991, some residents of the city that had been called Leningrad since 1924 went around writing “St. Petersburg” on city signs. They even changed street signs to restore some of the prerevolutionary street names. But they didn’t repave the streets with cobblestones, nor did they tear up the streets entirely in anticipation of flying cars.