The Shape of Things to Come

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Recently I described how the primordial soup of a market system could transform education. A new article suggests that this is already well under way.

The article How Do We Transform Our Schools? in Education Next by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn has created a big buzz. Christensen and Horn have now released a coauthored a book on the same subject: how technology will fundamentally transform American K-12 education:

That schools have gotten little back from their investment in technology should come as no surprise. Virtually every organization does the same thing schools have done when implementing an innovation. An organization’s natural instinct is to cram the innovation into its existing operating model to sustain what it already does. This is the predictable course, the logical course—and the wrong course.

I had always thought of online learning as interesting, but ultimately only a niche activity. Christensen and Horn, however, maintain that filling niches is exactly how a disruptive technology like online learning advances:

The way to implement an innovation so that it will transform an organization is to implement it disruptively—not by using it to compete against the existing paradigm and serve existing customers, but to let it compete against “non-consumption,” where the alternative is nothing at all.

The essence of the argument is this: a disruptive technology starts off as something which is perceived to be of inferior quality to the dominant practice. It gains a foothold however by satisfying the needs of consumers who otherwise would have gone under served by the dominant technology.

Online learning seems to fit the bill. Distance learning for example is very popular in Alaska, where children might otherwise have to commute vast distances through dangerous weather to attend a traditional school. Homeschoolers have taken to online learning and the authors point out that only about a third of American high schools have Advanced Placement courses. Better, many school administrators are now reasoning, to adopt such courses online than not to offer them at all.

Christensen and Horn describe the progress of online learning to date as being broadly similar to past disruptive technologies. The key moment of transformation comes years after the disruptive technology has filled niches here and there. Through the normal course of incremental improvement, the disruptive technology becomes superior to the dominant technology, and displaces it. Projecting from the limited amount of data available, the authors project 50 percent of K-12 courses will be delivered online by 2019.

 Whoa, I know calculus!

Bill, forget the phone booth, I just downloaded our history report straight to my brain dude!!

Out with the old, and in with the new. In this case however, the “old” is the labor intensive method of teaching students which has gone more or less unchanged since before Socrates. Could we really be on the verge of transforming the basic method of content delivery?

When I first read this article, I was skeptical. It seemed to me that the authors had underestimated the political obstacles standing in the way of such a transformation even if online learning does become recognized as a superior form of learning, which to date, it has not.

And yet…

It isn’t that hard to imagine the day coming when online programs would improve to the point where they were of demonstrably better quality than the tried and only sometimes true methods. Innovators are working on computer based learning programs that will adapt to the individual learning styles of children. Such programs will present information in a variety of ways, figure out which way works best for the individual learner and adapt the presentation accordingly.

Enormous promise also resides in the area of personalized, self-paced learning. Both fast and slower learners often find themselves frustrated by the pace of a course which settles on a class average which doesn’t suit them.

Can you imagine some clever team designing an online course around, say, the work of Milton Friedman and coming up with something better than the average high-school or college economics class? It doesn’t sound implausible to me-I can’t remember the name of the graduate student who taught my Econ 101 course, but he wasn’t Milton Friedman. He didn’t adapt his presentation to my learning style either. Come to think of it, I don’t think he spoke English fluently.

Exactly how such a transformation would play out, none can say. This was one of the lessons of Chris Andersen’s excellent book The Long Tail.  Andersen convincingly made the case that the internet is fundamentally transforming society. The transformation is simply different and more subtle than expected during the height of the bubble. The change isn’t exactly subtle for newspapers and record labels, which are being pushed aside, or network television, which draws starkly smaller audiences for top programs today than 30 years ago despite a much larger population.

I’m inclined to think that education will remain primarily a social enterprise, but mixed models of classroom and online instruction are already underway. The nonsensical notion of teachers being a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage” might actually make sense when the content comes primarily through technology.

Can technology deliver learning better and cheaper than today’s schools? NAEP shows that thirty four percent of American 4th graders can’t read. Somewhere close to that percentage of students drop out of high school, and many others graduate in need of remediation. The Colossus has feet of clay.

Politics will doubtlessly play an inhibiting role, but bet on the better mouse trap in the long run.

6 Responses to The Shape of Things to Come

  1. Lisa Snell says:

    I’m a big fan of Christensen, and as anecdotal evidence, the California Virtual Academy (which I serve as a board member) has grown from around 200 students to 10,000 in California in five years. We have now expanded to high school and enrollment is exploding. This virtual charter school, which uses K-12’s online school, curriculum, and school management system has an excellent academic track record. We have developed very extensive individualized special education services, and unlike most California schools we have students who learn to read and catch up to grade level and then exit the special education designation.

    Our teachers act as managers of families and may teach multiple grade levels. (A virtual one room school house.) California law requires one teacher for 25 students. CAVA teachers are more like instructional consultants. Some families need lots of help and other need minimal attention. The pay is very competitive and we offer large performance bonuses up to 10 percent of a teacher’s salary against performance benchmarks including student performance, parent and student satisfaction, and student retention. We also pay a 10 percent premium for special education and certain high school single subject credentials.

  2. matthewladner says:


    That is very interesting. Does the program include value-added assessment of student test scores? I saw a mixed classroom/online school that was doing value added on an ongoing basis, and it seemed very impressive.

  3. Excellent article, thanks! Another piece of supportive evidence may be seen in the form of the Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy to be launched this fall. The Academy will offer online courses to all 51 Jesuit high schools around the country. Right now, these are elective courses. However, I see no reason why required, core courses could not also be offered in the near future.

    Increasingly, telecommunications is becoming a substitute good for transportation. With gasoline prices on the rise, teleconferencing becomes a reasonable alternative. And as bandwith limitations fall (thanks gamers!) and fiber optics become more common, new methods of pedagogical community building emerge that make e-learning curriculum and instruction more effective.

    Diane Ravitch wrote in the 150th anniversary issue of the Economist magazine some years ago that scarcity of educational resources will become less and less constraining, and that in the near future, anyone could learn anything anywhere at anytime. That future appears to be here now. One challenge will be to structure incentives in ways that encourage all income groups to embrace the future of education.

  4. That is very interesting Stephen. I had wondered as well if technology might not be used to help keep financially struggling inner city Catholic schools afloat. It sounds like the Jesuits are ahead of the curve.

  5. Funny, I was just reading this article last night. I found it interesting that in the examples he gives, disruptive technology starts out by filling a need that the previous “better” tech hadn’t been filling. T
    inny transister radios don’t replace bigger, quality tabletop radios, but they provide radios to teenagers who didn’t have them before. Likewise, computer based learning makes headway not against a great classroom teacher, but in situations where a classroom is impractical or too expensive.
    So Rosetta Stone may not be superior to a native German speaker with years of experience teaching beginning students, but it is vastly superior to no responsive, interactive language input at all.
    I did find myself wondering if homeschooling itself might be a form of disruptive technology. Not if you look at it from the point of view of replacing students in public school classrooms. But what about all the families who were non-consumers of more individualized *private* school? Does homeschooling fill this niche?
    I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Disrupting Class and reading more on the concept.

  6. Dennis Szuba says:

    Thank you for giving this inspiring article. See mine!

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