Common Core Standards Boon to E-Learning Industry

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Federal officials have promoted the widespread adoption of Common Core curriculum standards with the claim that its focus on critical thinking will benefit students. While that remains to be seen, one area that is certain to benefit from more uniform educational standards is the online learning industry.

Even as critics sound alarms about the increasing privatization of public education, the Common Core promises to raise the e-learning industry to new levels by offering opportunities for more education products, including tests, and making it easier and less expensive for companies to develop them.

The standards are popular with educators and education officials: 45 states, including New York, have adopted Common Core standards, which emphasize analytical skills, mathematical word problems and nonfiction literature.

And the very thing that attracted so many states to adopt Common Core – the widespread standardization of learning goals, as well as the opportunity to do more creative teaching – can also turn it into a windfall for e-learning companies.

Industry leaders said they expected an increased need for basic learning materials to free up teachers to focus on the deeper-level thinking associated with Common Core. At the same time, content experts and developers can focus more on creating courses that address those new goals.

And with all the testing associated with Common Core, to gauge students’ progress and weaknesses, more tests will be necessary.

But the learning materials and tests no longer need to be differentiated state by state, saving the companies money, industry members said. Because of that, Common Core will be “a complete game changer,” said Susan Patrick, the chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a nonprofit that tracks the K-12 online industry.

Ms. Patrick added that content experts and developers could focus more on creating “gold standard” online courses to focus on deeper learning skills, and also invest in savvier performance metrics to improve personalized learning.

According to NextUp Research, the research arm of Global Silicon Valley Corp., the e-learning market in the United States is expected to grow to $6.8 billion by 2015, up from $2.9 billion in 2010.

That’s just a slice of the $9 billion that school districts and states spend every year on instructional materials for K-12 students.

But with every state and district requiring different materials to meet different goals, the industry also spends more to develop differentiated products. Common Core changes that.

“For the first time in the United States, standards will be clearer and aligned to internationally competitive academic benchmarks,” Ms. Patrick said.

Sanjeev Ahuja, the vice president of K-12 marketing for the company Blackboard, said that was a clear bonus for e-learning companies: “We don’t have to go and do 50 updates,” he said.

But emphasizing the uniformity of Common Core seems to some to undercut the standards' strongest selling point: its flexibility. John Ewing, president of Math for America, said that the math standards were “stunning,” and that he was concerned what the software developers will do with them.

“The idea,” Mr. Ewing said, “is to teach the teachers to look at the standards, unravel them, interpret them, and tackle the hard questions. But these e-learning companies are going to convert those nice standards into a mechanized presentation.”

The companies argue that their materials make it less expensive to teach content and skills, especially in states like New York, which spent $17,173 per student for public education in 2007-08, the highest of any state, according to the United States Census Bureau. Most of that expense is for higher salaries and benefits for teachers.

“Technology is a great way to implement the Common Core,” said Sari Factor, the chief executive of Education2020, an e-learning company based in Arizona. She said e-learning tools could be used to impart the basics to students so that teachers can concentrate on the goals of Common Core, pushing students to embrace complexity and nuance. “It frees teachers up to do the things they went into teaching for. It lets them focus on human interaction.”

The companies also say they are able to create products that assess performance and address the individual learning needs of students.

“It’s more about customizing how we help learners learn at their own pace and learn at the level they are at,” said Mr. Ahuja of Blackboard. Many of the companies have also introduced features for students with special needs, like closed captioning and facilities for visually impaired users.

But under Common Core, students in grades 3 through 11 could face math and English language arts assessments up to nine times a year. Despite the growing backlash by parents and educators against standardized testing, the e-learning companies expect they will be called upon more frequently for tests and related services.

“They’re literally salivating at the prospect of enhanced profit potential,” said Leonie Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters and a blog for parents of New York City public school students.

Roland Legiardi-Laura, a co-founder of the Power Writers literacy program, said that the Common Core was a “test factory wrapped up in a Tootsie Roll outer shell.”

Mr. Legiardi-Laura, an alumnus of Stuyvesant High School, said that standardization and increased reliance on technology would further erode the relationship between teachers and students. He said that this relationship was vital to a child’s success, and should not be mediated “through electronic screens and 0s and 1s.”

But e-learning companies say they are trying to develop tests that reinforce the goals of the standards.

“Questions will test a student’s creativity in open-ended ways,” said Alex Guerrier, co-founder of LearnZillion, a Washington-based start-up designed around the Common Core. “Adapting to the new questions will be exciting, but will also be a challenge.”

With no national body overseeing the implementation of the Common Core standards, some have raised concerns about consistency and quality of learning. E-learning companies, too, will have to figure out the best ways to meet the standards.

Some of the companies said they see this as a challenge – but one that they readily embrace.

“For a site like ours to have a single currency,” said Alex Grodd of BetterLesson, an e-learning company that works with a number of charter school networks and public school districts, “is a really big opportunity.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post included an incomplete description of BetterLesson. The company also works with public school districts, not just charter schools.