Ordering Curriculum to Go: Distance Learning and Online Curriculum Packages Offer School Districts Many Ways to Boost Their Class Offerings

Article excerpt

Prediction: Classrooms without teachers, often without fellow students where all assignments are completed via electronic connection to remote instructors; where students spend their school days in front of computers instead of a live human being; where everything from math and science to physical education is learned online.

Sound familiar? Predictions like these with their implications of robotic students and teacher obsolescence have alarmed educators for years, but there's no real reason to worry.

Like most predictions (Remember when the advent of television was supposed to spell Hollywood's doom?) the reality is far more complex than the prophecy.

True the country's school system is becoming more wired and electronic all the time; currently 96 percent of U.S. K-12 schools are connected to the Internet. However, far from replacing teachers, the new technologies are equipping educators with a storehouse of sophisticated tools offering teaching and learning options never before possible. Where once the economics of education tended to force a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, today's technology tools take flexible instructional approaches that respond to the variety of ways students learn. These tools include everything from guides to curriculum planning and model standards to lesson plans and student workbooks; from assessments and enrichment activities to customized course content and teacher training; from interactive audio/ video resources personalized for individual students to tools adapted to the styles of individual teachers; from single AP or supplemental course choices to accredited virtual schools and more. What's out there. is rich and varied, and becoming more so all the time.

Some refer to the growing trend of tapping these options as curriculum outsourcing, implying that educators are delegating to non-educators-in ways they never had done before--the responsibility for developing their course content and teaching tools. But, as pointed out by Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, schools have always bought course content and instructional tools from outside their system.

"Districts normally haven't written their own textbooks or developed their own student workbooks and instructor textbook manuals" he says. "Schools have been buying these materials from for-profit educational publishers for many decades." Even the practice of buying tests and other assessment tools from commercial purveyors is a long established one.

A big market with big demands

Several factors, however, are accelerating the trend toward outside support for education: a heightened national awareness, for one.

Education in the national spotlight, backed by pressure on schools to demonstrate effectiveness and integrate technology into the curriculum--a force Houston calls "bludgeoning people to greatness"--has most educators scrambling to buy the latest online content and tools available.

The second factor is a gargantuan edcuation market, estimated at $700 billion annually, second in the U.S. only to healthcare. There are about 112,000 K-12 schools in 14,500 districts. Jumping on the opportunity and capitalizing on growing acceptability of private industry participation in public education, business has quickly hired educators and developed a wide variety of educational products, services and strategies. "Where once the door was closed to privatizing on the education side, in the last few decades barriers between private and public have been lowered," Houston says. "It is now a lot easier for business to enter the educational marketplace and develop products linked to state standards and standardized test results. Such products appeal to the heavily pressured school districts."

Even the major educational publishers serving the U.S. market--Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, Pearson and Thomson--are all moving in the direction of cyberspace. …