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January 6, 2014

Why disruptive innovation matters to education

by Thomas Arnett

There is a common tendency at this time of year to reflect and refocus on what matters most and then use that renewed focus to chart into the year ahead. In that spirit of reflection, I want to share some thoughts on why the theory of disruptive innovation, which guides our work here at the Clayton Christensen Institute, is so important to education. If you are not familiar with the theory of disruptive innovation, a brief explanation is available here on our website. For a more thorough explanation, The Innovator’s Solution lays out the theory in a comprehensive yet digestible format. My purpose here is not to explain the theory, but rather, explain in brief why that theory should matter to people who want to improve our education system.

First, disruptive innovation is the catalyst for bringing about more equitable access to high-quality education.

One of the great tragedies of our time is that a student’s zip code largely determines whether she will receive a high-quality education. As a result, there is an achievement gap between students who grow up in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods and students who grow up in low-income areas. Although government policy has made education universally available, it has not been able to make high-quality education accessible to all. Disruptive innovation provides the key to leveling that playing field.

In general, when new technologies emerge they are usually accessible only to people with wealth and expertise. Disruptive innovation is the force that democratizes those technologies. Take computers as an example. In the 1950s, computers were multi-million dollar machines that had to be housed in large buildings and that could only be operated by people with advanced training in computer science. Today, computers with orders of magnitude more power and immensely greater functionality than the 1950s-era machines are being carried around in the pockets of almost every adult and teenager in the world. Disruptive innovation was the economic force that brought computing power to the masses.

In a similar manner, personal tutelage is an educational technology that has been around for centuries, but has historically only been available to the children of nobility or the wealthy elite. We are now entering an era, however, when computers and the Internet are making personalized learning accessible and affordable to the masses. These disruptive technologies are supplementing and scaling the impact of great mentors and instructors so that their expertise can be available to every student.

Second, disruptive innovation is the mechanism for bringing about a personalized education system.

An education system that can be tailored to each individual student’s learning needs so that all students can succeed is clearly an ideal worth striving for. Unfortunately, that type of personalization has historically been too expensive to provide. Instead, we have opted for a factory-based model of education where schools achieve economies of scale by processing students in batches along a fixed schedule. But now, for the first time in history, computer-based technologies are making personalized learning a reality.

The challenge for personalized-learning technologies, however, is that they are still not yet as good as a well-run factory-based school system. As a result, technology-enabled personalized learning has a hard time gaining traction as an alternative to traditional schools. The good news is that personalized-learning technologies do not have to emerge in a form that is better than the existing system.  The process of disruptive innovation allows them to take root outside of the traditional system and then improve over time until their value is universally acknowledged and widely adopted. In short, if personalized learning is the goal, online learning is the technology that makes the goal possible, and disruptive innovation is the economic process that allows the technology to fulfill its promise.

Third, disruptive innovation circumvents the political battles that have historically been at the center stage of education reform.

Existing policies tend to favor the incumbent system, and hence changing those policies requires battling with those incumbents in the political arena. In contrast, disruptive innovations take root in areas outside the domain of the incumbents. Instead of challenging the status quo head-on, disruptive innovations take root and grow outside the purview of the incumbent system. They then improve independently over time until they begin to organically draw people away from the status quo. At that point, policies shift naturally to accommodate the highly-sought-after disruptive technology.

For most education reformers, the thought of finding a way to close the achievement gap with minimal political resistance through the natural development of a new technology seems too good to be true. Yet such a path lies ahead of those who find ways to pursue education reform through the mechanisms of disruptive innovation.

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