Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive?

By 05/29/2013

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Last week the Clayton Christensen Institute published its fourth major paper on K–12 blended learning, titled “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction to theory of hybrids.”

Clayton Christensen joined Heather Staker, who has authored all four of our papers, and me in writing this paper, which takes a different approach from our past discussions of blended learning. Whereas our past work took a descriptive approach in defining blended learning, in this paper we analyze blended learning for the first time through the lens of disruptive innovation theory to help people anticipate and plan for its likely effects on the classrooms of today and schools of tomorrow.

The paper represents another first: we introduce formally a new concept to the world of disruptive innovation: the theory of hybrids.

The process of disruption is often painted as a straightforward phenomenon. New organizations tend to introduce disruptions, which are generally simpler, more affordable, more accessible, and not as good as the leading products or services in a sector. Because they aren’t as good, they first plant themselves among nonconsumers—people who are unable to consume the existing products because they are too expensive, complicated, or inconvenient and therefore are delighted with this new innovation. From there, disruptions improve, and, over time, supplant the dominant products as people flock to them because they delighted with the new value propositions disruptions deliver.

What we see from our research, however, is that the transition is rarely that clean. Sectors in the midst of a disruptive transformation often experience a hybrid phase, in which the leading organizations do adopt the new technology, but they do so as a hybrid—a sustaining innovation that offers a combination of the old technology with the new to deliver the “best of both worlds.”

We see hybrids everywhere—from cars (think Toyota Prius) to ships (sails plus steam) and from banks (branch plus online banking) to retail (bricks and clicks). And we see them in education as well through blended learning.

Does that mean that all blended learning is a sustaining innovation? Given that the vast majority of online learning is growing in blended-learning environments, are the hopes for disruption in K–12 education that we wrote about in Disrupting Class for naught?

Yes and no.

The paper dives into detail, but here are a few of the high-level conclusions the theory allows us to reach about the future of K–12 education.

First, in sectors where there is no nonconsumption, the only way a disruptive innovation can take root and grow is in a hybrid or through eternal subsidy. In the United States, little nonconsumption exists at the school level. Almost every student has access to a government-funded school of some sort. As a result, we can predict that most students will, in the future, still attend schools, but they will be hybrids—blended learning schools that combine brick-and-mortar buildings with online learning.

Second, although schools will not be disrupted, we see that online learning is poised to disrupt the traditional classroom (hence why the original book was called Disrupting Class, not Disrupting Schools). Of the blended-learning models we’ve identified, some are still hybrids—that is, sustaining innovations—relative to the classroom, and others are disruptive. The hybrids, which include the Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, and Flipped Classroom models, combine online learning with the traditional classroom. The disruptive models, which include the Flex, A La Carte, Enriched Virtual, and Individual Rotation models, dispense with the traditional classroom as we know it; they often get their start among nonconsumption; and they offer benefits that accord to a new definition of what’s good. The disruptive models are the engines of change in education over the long run.

Third, because there isn’t a lot of obvious nonconsumption of classes or subjects at the elementary school level, the future of elementary schools is likely to be largely, but not exclusively, a sustaining innovation story for the classroom. The disruptive models of blended learning may have little impact there. In contrast, because there is rampant nonconsumption in secondary schools—of advanced courses, foreign languages, credit recovery and so on—the disruptive models of blended learning are likely to replace the traditional classroom over the long term.

Finally, our analysis has significant implications for educators and those working in education. For example, individual teachers often ask how they can start down the blended-learning path if their whole school isn’t on board. Our analysis shows that the only options available to them are to implement sustaining innovations relative to their existing classroom—by flipping their classroom or maybe implementing a Station Rotation model. For school principals with significant autonomy over budget and school architecture, the story is different. They will be able to implement the disruptive models of blended learning—but our paper also points to solid reasons why they might want to implement both sustaining innovations as well as disruptive innovations. There are implications for superintendents, policymakers, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs as well.

The disruptive models of blended learning ultimately introduce new benefits that focus on providing individualization; universal access and equity; and productivity. Over time, as the disruptive models of blended learning improve, these new value propositions will be powerful enough to prevail over those of the traditional classroom in secondary schools. As this happens, the role of schools is likely to pivot. Schools will leverage online learning for academics, which means they will be able to act as community centers in essence and focus far more on providing well-kept facilities that students want to attend with great face-to-face supports, high-quality meals, and a range of athletic, musical, and artistic programs—things that receive short shrift all too often today.

-Michael Horn

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