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Curriculum

Bennett’s Online Education System Needs Work, Critic Contends

By Andrew Trotter — May 30, 2001 2 min read
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Educators who are hoping K12 Inc.—the educational technology startup that boasts William J. Bennett as its chairman—will deliver cutting-edge online education might be disappointed when the company launches its full courses this coming fall.

At least that’s what one skeptic said after the e-learning company, launched by the cultural commentator and former secretary of education, previewed its system for delivering online education at a press briefing at the Heritage Foundation here last week.

“In the 21st century, they’re delivering a 19th- century curriculum,” said Elliot Soloway, a professor of engineering, education, and information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, after hearing a description of the company’s demonstration.

Mr. Soloway said the program, although designed to help any “committed” adult with average reading skills teach a child, didn’t appear to be well tailored to meet the needs of individual students, either.

K12 has been giving glimpses of its learning activities for kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade that in September it plans to deliver to online purchasers, who are expected to be families of home schoolers, several after-school programs, and at least one “virtual” charter school.

The snippets of what K12 plans to offer that were on display last week appeared to be typical worksheet-style computer lessons, with brief bits of animation or sound effects as rewards—which Mr. Soloway said is hardly revolutionary.

But rather than being technologically innovative, company officials say, the strengths of K12 and its products may lie elsewhere—and in a place that education technology companies have rarely ventured.

The company’s goal in using technology is “first of all, to do no harm,” said K12’s technology adviser, David Gelertner, a professor of computer science at Yale University, who, like Mr. Bennett, has been a critic of the way technology has been used in schools. He said technology’s role is to deliver “good materials, without generating dangerous nuisances, useless distractions, and educational cul de sacs.”

‘Intelligent Blackboard’

The computer “is also not supposed to replace books in any way,” Mr. Gelertner added, but to serve as an “intelligent blackboard for parent and child to look at together” and as a communication medium to create a broader community of learners.

Regardless of whether K12 comes out with online courses that are innovative, company officials said the courses, which cover most major subjects, will succeed in the markets the company plans to target—charter schools and home schoolers, who include many conservative parents to whom Mr. Bennett may particularly appeal. (“Former Education Secretary Starts Online-Learning Venture,” Jan. 10, 2001.)

“Our PR strategy [so far] can be summed up in two words—Bill Bennett,” said Ken Stickevers, the senior vice president of marketing for the McLean, Va.-based company.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Bennett’s Online Education System Needs Work, Critic Contends

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