Texas should tell parents about course choice.

Guest contributor Heather Staker, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that works to transform education through disruptive innovation, writes frequently on blended learning and other education topics. This post is adapted from one that previously appeared on the institute’s blog. Three of Heather’s children attend Acton Academy, an independent school in Austin that regularly makes use of online learning resources.

The author with students at Acton Academy

Do you know what the TxVSN is? If not, you’re not alone. I asked 25 neighbors in Austin with children in grades K–12 what the acronym stands for, and not even one person knew. That’s unfortunate because last year the Texas legislature passed HB1926, which requires districts to pay for high school students to take up to three year-long online courses per school year through the TxVSN—the Texas Virtual School Network.

Despite that opportunity, 24 out of the 25 parents in my informal survey said they were not aware that tax dollars will pay for students to take online courses. When I asked how well schools communicate online course options to parents, 88 percent of the parents said “not at all” or “poorly.”

This suggests that thousands of students who need an alternative to a face-to-face course are likely to miss out simply because of lack of communication. Do students in Amarillo know that they can take online Chinese? Do busy athletes in Dallas and San Antonio know that they can take online world history, sociology, and psychology if those courses don’t fit in their normal schedules? What about students who want a course about information technology—do they know that the TxVSN offers an option for those whose districts have none?

The fine print of HB1926 says that school districts must provide parents with a written notification of TxVSN policies every year. But districts are likely to downplay that requirement; after all, they have little incentive to pay for students to pursue anything outside their geographic boundaries. Although I am sympathetic to the challenge of breaking down time-honored boundaries and staffing structures, limiting Texas students to the learning opportunities within their local vicinities no longer makes sense when countless lessons and resources are now available online and worldwide. Districts will need some pressure from parents and the state to do a really good job of publicizing options to students, but with some respectful encouragement, I’m confident they will choose to give their students every possible opportunity rather than keep them in the dark.

The legislature has acted to extend course choice to students. Let’s leverage that opportunity.

That’s my cheerleading for HB1926. Now for my criticism. Although HB1926 broadens course choice, Texas is nowhere near where it should be in terms of bringing digital opportunities to our children. For one thing, the TxVSN is pretty weak. Check out the site—it ought to look like the Amazon.com of learning opportunities, all listed in one clean, simple, user interface. Instead it’s a clutter of bureaucratic paragraphs and government FAQs. Dig a little deeper, and the range of courses is limited and uninspiring. I hope that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will take a clue from Silicon Valley about how to build a consumer-facing portal. As Steve Jobs said, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean and make it simple.”

One essential feature of the site should be information about which courses are any good. Do students find them engaging? Do they learn anything? Was it even worth it? Let’s have some transparency, openness, and student input about what this site is peddling.

Furthermore, I don’t see why state portals such as the TxVSN are even limited by state. Shouldn’t a Texas student be able to take a great Florida Virtual School or Michigan Virtual School course? In fact, Texas should grant credit to students who can ace the state’s end-of-course exams even if they learned the content from an outside site such as Khan Academy or the edX platform created by Harvard and MIT. Our interest is in helping Texas students reach mastery, not in overly controlling or limiting the pathway to get there.

These are primarily TEA issues. But the legislature has some work to do, too, to fix HB1926 next session. The law has all kinds of loopholes to limit course choice. Districts can deny choice, for example, if they think they offer a “substantially similar course.” The state won’t pay for more than three a year. And the maximum price for a TxVSN course is capped at $400, which means that the state bars students from certain premium courses purely because it set an arbitrary fixed price. Better to let the state commissioner of education negotiate prices.

Online learning is a classic disruptive innovation that’s changing the way the world learns. It’s shocking to me that so many shun the one innovation that arguably has more potential to broaden education access than any other since the dawn of the printing press. Texas should stop trying to limit and duck, but instead lead the way nationally in channeling online learning to its highest quality and broadest potential.

Let’s make learning options for our children as big and bold as Texas is. Our state has always been a leader, and it’s a shame to be laggards in bringing next-generation learning formats to our youth.

Heather Staker