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Disruptive innovation in education
Blender by Cookbookman17 on Flickr

A new paper out last week from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation (formerly the Innosight Institute) sets out some theories and provocative predictions about the likely direction that innovation will take in K-12 classrooms.

Christensen, a business expert, professor at Harvard Business School, bestselling author, and a devout Mormon, coined the term “disruptive innovation” about 20 years ago. In recent years Christensen has been increasingly interested in education. Disruptive innovation has become a huge buzzword in the world of higher ed, where it’s usually taken to refer to online, open-access, and low-cost or even free learning options. But K-12 school has never quite fit his theories.

This new report could be read as an attempt to boost the reputation of disruptive innovation as it applies to the K-12 space, by reframing “disruption”. I don’t think it’s entirely successful.

By disruptive innovation, Christensen originally meant a new type of product or service that was so much cheaper, simpler or easier to use, that it opens up an entire new market. When it first appears, a disruptive innovation is obviously not as high-quality or full-featured as the established product it is competing with, so it is attractive mostly to “nonconsumers” who can’t afford the original thing. But the disruptive innovation gradually improves until it completely dominates, putting the old-school products out of business. Two examples are the discount retailers such as Walmart vs. the old Main Street department store, and the personal computer vs. the old mainframe.

The first problem with the idea of “disruptive innovation,” in K-12, as far as Christensen’s original definition or model goes, is that there are few if any non-consumers in the world of school. “Almost every student has access to a government-funded school of some sort.”

Nor would most people seriously argue that what public schoolchildren really need is a cheaper, less full-featured learning option. We might talk about reallocation of resources or about efficiency, but the idea of cutting school budgets has few blatant fans.

Nor do Christensen or his co-authors envision large numbers of children telecommuting from their living rooms to a virtual classroom anytime soon. They do see up to half of all high school courses being offered online by 2019, a trend that is starting in areas like credit recovery for dropouts, AP, foreign languages, and early college enrollment. But they predict that for the foreseeable future, nine out of ten kids will keep attending brick-and-mortar schools away from home. This for the simple reason that their parents have to work and can’t be watching them all day long.

This leaves K-12 learning innovation stuck in an awkward phase–the “hybrid phase.” Hybrids are an attempt to provide the “best of both worlds” between a solution that was previously available and a new, disruptive alternative. The problem is that they often seem like the worst of both worlds instead. A hybrid car is far more expensive and less powerful than a gas-powered car, and because it is so much heavier, it doesn’t have the battery life or performance of a pure electric.

By the same token, using blended learning in K-12 often means a lot of up-front investment in devices, software and training teachers. But you still have all the old costs and burden of maintaining the schools’ physical plants. And while asking kids to learn in a self-paced way from online programs might, in theory, simplify the job of teachers, weaving digital technology gracefully into an engaging classroom experience requires very advanced skills.

Christensen and the paper’s co-authors close with a set of recommendations for school leaders who wish to “push” disruptive innovation, meaning individualized online programs, in K-12. But what’s not totally clear to me is why school leaders would be eager to do that. Blended learning, not online-only, is what we’ll have in K-12 for quite a while to come.

It also occurs to me that focusing only on online options really limits the scope of what might be truly disruptive, in a good way, to public education. Look at the growth of vocational, co-op, internship and mentorship programs, early college and dual enrollment, schoolhouse gardens and Makerspaces, libraries, parks and museum-based education. If the baseline function of our schools is simply a place to warehouse and segregate children by age, surely our communities can improve on that.

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Anya Kamenetz, writes the Digital blog for The Hechinger Report. She is a contributing writer at Fast Company and the author of several books and book chapters about the future of education, including...

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