The theory of disruptive innovation describes a process by which a product or service transforms an existing industry by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability. But ironically, many early-stage disruptive innovations don’t look very transformative to casual observers. Instead, they often get labeled as low-quality options that are uninteresting because they aren’t good enough to meet the needs of most mainstream customers. What people often fail to grasp is that disruptive innovations get their initial footholds not by being better than what was already available, but by offering other benefits along new performance metrics that make them attractive to people who had previously been unserved or over served by the mainstream technologies. Then with time, the disruptive innovations improve to the point where they are good enough to meet mainstream performance demands and realize their transformative potential.
Last week I visited a credit recovery program to learn more about their use of blended learning. The program is housed in a single classroom with five rows of individual computer stations, a desk for the teacher at the back of the room, and a few small tables for collaboration. Students in the program attend school for four hours per day, and spend most of their school time at the individual computer stations working through online course materials. Their daily learning experience consists mainly of reading the text for their online courses, completing paper-and-pencil worksheets that correspond to each section of the text, and then taking online quizzes after completing each section.
As I observed the program, I couldn’t help but notice that it does not represent what many would consider to be high-quality education. The students I spoke with candidly stated that they found their online courses to be boring. They also felt like little of what they did was engaging or interesting enough to be memorable beyond their exams. But despite these shortcomings in academic quality and rigor, there were other important benefits of the program that were available as a direct result of the use of blended learning.
During my visit, the lead teacher explained that many of his students had learned to try to get through school by just sitting through classes and doing what teachers told them to do. In that setting, teachers had been the primary drivers of instruction, and these students had learned to just be passive participants. In contrast, the self-paced curriculum in the blended-learning program put these students in the driver seat of their own learning for the first time. At any moment the students can look at their course dashboard to see exactly what their grades are in their courses and exactly what percentage of the course material they have completed. They know which courses they need to complete in order to either graduate or transition back to the traditional high school, and they know the deadlines they need to meet in order to reach those goals. As they work on their courses each day, the course dashboard lets them see for themselves the relationship between effort and progress.
The blended-learning model also unlocks opportunities for the teacher to have a greater positive influence on students’ lives. The lead teacher explained to me that many students come into the program with the self-perception that they are “rejects” who aren’t smart enough to be successful in school or in life. They often have difficult social and family issues outside of school and do not know how to deal with frustration in a positive and productive way. These social and emotional challenges can be major barriers to their academic success. But after highlighting these problems, the teacher went on to explain all the things he does to help students set and work toward personal goals, learn strategies for persisting through frustrations, and work through their academic and non-academic challenges. For teachers in traditional classrooms, it is difficult to find the time to provide this kind of support to their students. But for this teacher, blended learning enabled him to magnify his role as a coach and mentor.
The implementation of blended learning that I saw during my visit clearly has room to improve when it comes to providing high-quality academic instruction. But for the students in the program, blended learning is a powerful enabler of self-motivated learning and increased teacher support. Although this form of blended learning may not yet seem to have transformative potential in the broader education system, the theory of disruptive innovation suggests that it eventually will. As that happens, it will be fascinating to see how blended learning impacts students’ relationships with their teachers and improves the non-academic aspects of their learning.