Online learning has the power to transform education, as the creation of free online universities demonstrates.

Online learning has the power to transform education, as the creation of free online universities demonstrates.

Although technically it was published in 2008, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, by Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, and Michael Horn, made a huge impression in the past year, and its authors spoke at numerous education conferences in 2009. Their ideas proved quite prophetic later in the year, when a new online-learning movement that is sure to disrupt higher education began.

At the American Association of School Administrators’ annual conference in February, Christensen explained the premise of his thought-provoking book, which looks at why schools have struggled to improve through the lens of “disruptive innovation.”

If Christensen is right, half of all instruction will take place online within the next 10 years–and schools had better get into the online-learning market or risk losing their students to other providers.

Disruptive innovation is the business idea that, every so often, a new innovation comes along that completely changes the marketplace, knocking the old market leaders from their perch and giving rise to new ones.

Whenever a disruptive innovation occurs, the substitution pattern in which the new model replaces the old one follows an S-curve pattern that can be calculated mathematically, Christensen said. At first, as the suppliers of a new innovation work out its flaws, adoption is fairly flat. But then, as the innovation improves to the point where it’s widely affordable, accessible, and delivers a satisfactory experience, adoption spikes exponentially.

This mathematical model has proven to be remarkably consistent throughout history, Christensen said. And if that historical pattern holds true, then the latest disruptive innovation that is sure to affect education–online learning–is set to take off dramatically.

Online enrollments in K-12 education have grown from an estimated 45,000 in 2000 to more than a million last year. By 2013, he said, 10 percent of all “seat time” will be occupied by online instruction–and within 10 years, he predicted, more than half of all seat time will be online enrollments.

Until now, the providers of online instruction have catered primarily to areas of “non-consumption” in education, Christensen said, such as credit recovery, AP courses, and home-schooled or homebound students.

But that will change once online instruction reaches its tipping point–and if schools want to compete for these “customers” (their students), they should consider partnering with an online-learning provider or starting an online program of their own.

Online learning already has disrupted providers of traditional education to some extent, but a new movement that began this year could really shake up higher education: A few online startup universities are charging little or no tuition for access to a wealth of college curriculum, and advocates say these free web-based programs could help expand higher education to the developing world.

These so-called open universities are “exactly what the internet should be,” said Shai Reshef, founder and president of University of the People, which welcomed its first students in September. “That’s why [the internet] was invented–to enable information to flow everywhere.”