San Francisco--Listening to Sal Khan describe at the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) governance conference how Marlborough School in Los Angeles is using Khan Academy to expand its math curriculum, I am struck by the similarity between on-line education in the United States in 2012 and health care practice back in the mid-1980's. As managed care in all its varieties was just entering the large employer health insurance marketplace, there were those clinicians and hospitals who believed that conventional medical practice was superior and would always exist. Their fight was not only in vain--some form of managed care is paradigmatic today for every insured in the U.S.--it was also wrongheaded, ignoring as it did the very obvious benefits that could accrue from evidence-based practice and serious attempts to control costs.
I still hear board members and even some heads of school in independent and international schools say that nothing will replace the high touch, handcrafted model of private education. The problem is that this protest is, like with managed care, both in vain and wrongheaded. Khan classes alone now engage six times the number of students that have graduated from Harvard since 1639. Add all of the other versions and brands of on-line instruction, plot the trend line, and the moment is not far off when this mode becomes paradigmatic for elementary and secondary schools, but with a twist.
The twist is something that Khan/Marlborough illustrates: it allocates content delivery to the on-line world, thereby leveraging scalability where it is possible, and leaves the high touch world of coaching and credentialing (providing the diploma or transcript) to the school where these are most effective and possible. It is past time for boards and heads to resist using technology to accelerate learning--this train has long since left the station. Time instead to start emulating and expanding best practices. We are at the point where having no on-line strategy equals having no strategy.