Online learning is a disruptive innovation—an innovation that transforms a sector by making it simpler, more convenient, and affordable.

As online learning has grown rapidly in K-12 education, news stories have captured several angles about the phenomenon.

Some have chronicled great online learning experiences that illustrate its potential to remake the public education system into one that can personalize for different student needs. Others have portrayed seemingly bad examples of online learning and called into question its broader potential. Still others have just reported on its rapid—and sometimes viral—growth and left it there.

But the news coverage has largely failed to capture two of the critical strands underlying these story lines: an understanding of how a disruptive innovation evolves and the role of public policy in shaping it.

Online learning is a disruptive innovation—an innovation that transforms a sector by making it simpler, more convenient, and affordable. Disruptive innovations have transformed many parts of our society, everything from computing to how we do taxes. But disruptive innovations don’t transform the world overnight.

Instead, disruptive innovations typically start out as primitive; early on, they can only solve the simplest of problems, so people tend to deride them. But disruptive innovations improve predictably over time—often over several decades—to solve harder problems. And as they do so, over time, people abandon their old ways of doing things, shed their conceptions about how things have to be, and adopt the new.

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The smart phones that millions of Americans carry around with them each have more power today than the computers that helped send the first men to the moon. But they didn’t start out that way. The first cell phones were bulky and unreliable. Like all technologies, though, they improved—and like any disruptive innovation, they transformed our lives as they did so.

Online learning is following the same trajectory. According to some research, online learning worked best initially for those who were most “motivated.” It’s often been most successful in places where the alternative is nothing at all—not where it has competed against the existing system.

But what started 20 years ago as simple correspondence courses delivered online has morphed. Today, online learning providers are improving the medium by blending it into school environments, improving the ways by which teachers interact with students online, and delivering far more engaging experiences with improved content and data platforms to deliver more targeted learning experiences.