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Opinion: Virtual schools are a critical piece of education’s future

By Michael Simonson, Contributor
January 18th, 2010

Classroom and lecture hall disruption can be important for students on every level of education.

Classroom and lecture hall disruption can be important for students on every level of education, writes Michael Simonson.

Technological innovations might be categorized along a continuum from sustaining to disruptive. In education, a sustaining technology might be a SMART Board, which in most applications is a way to present information dynamically and efficiently—a sustaining upgrade to the chalkboard and overhead projector—while a disruptive technology would be a virtual school.

As a matter of fact, most attempts to integrate instructional technology into the traditional classroom are examples of sustaining technologies: data projectors, DVD players, eBooks—all which improve the performance of established products.

Most integrated technologies sustain, and do not disrupt.

On the other hand, distance education and virtual schools are probably not sustaining technologies. Rather, distance education, virtual schooling, and eLearning are disruptive.

For example, distance education is aimed at students (often older, working, remotely located learners) who are ignored by established companies (traditional schools).

Distance education presents a different package of performance attributes that are not valued by existing customers. Distance education might come to dominate by filling a role that the older technology could not fill.

Education technology expert Clayton Christensen—author of Disrupting Class and The Innovator’s Prescription, among other books—has written extensively about the concept of disruptive technologies.

Christensen’s work has been widely embraced in the business world, and his work helps explain why some established industries fail, and others spring up, seemingly from nowhere.

No better example is the personal computer: Not a single mini-computer manufacturer was a successful manufacturer of personal computers; they did not see the power of the new technology until others had captured market share.

Similarly, most in education have ignored the potential of looking at the ideas supporting Christensen’s theory, and how disruptive technologies might be transforming education and training.

For example, in Florida there is a mandate that every public school district must establish a virtual K-8 and K-12 program. Many have wondered why Florida legislators would pass such a sweeping law; perhaps the answer is that in Florida, there existed a desire to try a disruptive technology.

Whatever the reason for Florida to establish virtual schools, it is clear that distance education and virtual schooling are disrupting traditional education, and this might not be as bad as it sounds. It might be a good idea for educators to become more cognizant of Christensen’s work, and the power of disruptive technologies to change education.

Florida legislators’ support for virtual schooling was recognized by the Center for Digital Education (CDE) last year. For the second year in a row, CDE named Florida as the No. 1 state in online education.

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