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Online learning: Disruptive innovation in progress


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.

See also:

Virtual schooling’s popularity challenges policy makers

Online students brace for new rules in Colorado

Four keys to creating successful eLearning programs

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.

Entrepreneurs are working feverishly to change the labor model to allow teachers to work with students on demand, incorporate gaming techniques to improve student motivation, and create adaptive learning engines that can do for learning what Amazon has done for shopping—tailor it to the learner’s preferences. Some of these innovations will work, and others won’t, which is part of innovation. But eventually, online learning will transform the way we learn—even if we can’t say exactly how today.

The second strand the media has largely missed is the role of policy and regulations in shaping how online learning will evolve in the public sphere.

Although many point to online learning’s inherent ability to personalize and bolster learning, when it comes to publicly funded education, policies and regulations help create the environment that determines what types of online learning will and won’t succeed.

Today’s public education system isn’t largely built to reward the services that help different students learn best. Colorado provides one ugly example.

The state historically has paid a school all of its funds on a “count day” in October, based on the number of students enrolled on that day. If students leave afterward, the original school keeps the funds. If students enroll elsewhere, the new school receives no funds. This incentivizes providers to enroll students, but there are few incentives in place to focus on what happens after that.

See also:

Virtual schooling’s popularity challenges policy makers

Online students brace for new rules in Colorado

Four keys to creating successful eLearning programs

As full-time virtual schools have emerged in the state, according to news reports, many seem to have done exactly what their incentives encourage them to do. The ending hasn’t been pretty for students, as a great number of them allegedly leave soon after the count day and enroll back in district schools if they enroll elsewhere at all.

Does this mean that online learning is bad? No. The real story should be on the policy environment that encourages this. In contrast, in Florida, the statewide online school only receives funds when students successfully complete a course. The outcomes have been far better for students.

Missing from the media’s coverage of online learning is how policy makers have yet to seize the opportunity it presents to transition from an education system that rewards compliance around such things as the minutes students sit in seats and antiquated teacher certification rules to one that thoughtfully rewards student outcomes through performance-based funding, multiple options for students, and valid independent assessments of learning—and explores the bumps in the road along the way.

Even as online learning’s growth may be inexorable, there are still large and unanswered questions over how it will transform our education system. Thoughtful reporting on how different policies can channel it toward different ends and what ends would be most productive are the stories that we need.

Michael B. Horn is the co-founder and executive director of the education practice of Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in the social sector. He is also the author of several publications and articles, including the book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

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