Avoid the hype: Online learning’s transformational potential
In Larry Cuban’s recent piece in the Washington Post, “Why K-12 online learning isn’t really revolutionizing teaching,” he in essence says that our research showing that online learning is a disruptive innovation that has the potential to transform K–12 education into a student-centric learning design that can allow each student to realize his or her fullest potential is unfortunate hype from academic gurus.
What’s unfortunate is Cuban’s misrepresentation of our research to hype his argument.
Cuban refers to our prediction that by 2019 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online in some form or fashion. He says that the prediction is erroneous because of the different forms in which online learning will arrive and argues that online learning will not disrupt schools.
What might shock him is that we agree with those two statements.
For the first, that’s why our prediction states that online learning will occur in different forms and fashions, and the bulk of it—at least 90 percent—will be in blended-learning environments. It is interesting that Cuban doesn’t dispute that these different forms might add up to 50 percent of high school courses by 2019.
Indeed, our research at the Clayton Christensen Institute has explored in sharp detail the different forms of online learning in K–12 education, as we have provided a definition of blended learning that is used widely in the field and have classified the different models we see emerging in schools themselves to give educators a language to talk about the different innovations they are pioneering. Perhaps Cuban should draw on some of this research before discussing blended learning.
As to the second point, we have never stated that online learning will disrupt schools; instead, our research shows that online learning will disrupt the traditional classroom environment in secondary schools over the long term. Our latest research adds another subtlety, which is that online learning is unlikely to be disruptive to the traditional classroom in elementary schools, but instead will, for the most part, take place within those traditional classrooms.
Cuban’s other main point in the piece is more complex. He says that some online learning programs are teacher-centric, whereas others are quite student-centric and high quality. He is right. Not all online learning—in blended-learning or distance-learning environments—is good. Some of it is great, and some of it is bad. This is why we’ve said that online learning has the potential—but is not guaranteed—to transform schools into student-centric learning environments.
Cuban has long done some of the best work in explaining why so many hyped learning fads and technologies have failed to transform schooling. His past work is in fact consistent with the theories of disruptive innovation, which show that the model in which a technology is implemented is often more important than the technology itself. This is in part why we relied heavily on his research in Chapter 3 of Disrupting Class. Central to his argument has been that despite all the reforms and fads, once the classroom door shuts, teachers have the domain to ignore all of the reform efforts and fall back on what they know and believe is best.
Once again, we agree. This is why, however, disruptive innovation is so powerful. In education, it can allow us to replace that classroom model with a new one that is far more conducive to personalizing learning for each student. What the theory of disruptive innovation says is that online learning—in its many forms—will disrupt the traditional classroom over the long haul in secondary schools. What disruptive innovation does not say is whether the result will be a student-centric learning design. The theory is largely silent on this normative question.
That’s where the potential enters the equation. Because online learning scales naturally, the good programs about which Cuban writes can theoretically serve millions of students and aid millions of teachers. The question at hand is how do we create the conditions for the good programs, not the mediocre or bad ones, to thrive.
Because we have the chance to reinvent the learning model as we know it—with far fewer constituencies standing in the way of protecting the “status quo” in online learning—there is currently a window in which to put in place policies that create the proper incentives. Paying providers for student outcomes; not regulating and paying for inputs so as to free up educators on the ground to make smart decisions for their students; moving to a competency-based learning system, in which students progress once they have mastered a concept, not when the calendar says it is time to move on; and having appropriate on-demand systems of assessments that allow for a bottoms-up accountability that rewards growth instead of today’s top-down accountability system together appear to be critical pieces.
If online learning continues to grow within the current regulatory environment, however, which focuses on inputs instead of outcomes and has at its core a set of assumptions that takes the factory-model classroom system that has been in place for over 100 years as a given, then we may lose that window.
We education transformers—those who do not want to just reform education but to transform it into a student-centric design—don’t have all the answers for how to do this well. We should admit that. But Cuban and others could help. Rather than simply act as naysayers who say why everything is doomed to fail, they could be part of “the solution.” Asking how we might make this unique opportunity different—or pointing out where we are erring in shaping it in a constructive fashion—would go a long way. The past is instructive, but it should help guide us forward, not hold us back.