Can learning ecosystems work for all learners? (Part 2)


Apr 21, 2022

Key points

  • Right now, learning ecosystems offer flexibility and customizability at the expense of basic functionality and reliability. 
  • Over time, learning ecosystems will need to improve on functionality and reliability in order to become attractive alternatives to schooling.

When school buildings closed during the pandemic, some families turned to learning pods, microschools, and homeschooling co-ops. The initial aim was to fill gaps in custodial care, socialization, and enrichment opportunities for their children. For many, these workarounds were inconvenient. But some families discovered the immense appeal of more flexible and customizable education. And as these arrangements have drawn on community resources outside of schools and districts to facilitate children’s education, they’ve also prompted increased interest in learning ecosystems—programs to fund and give credit for community-based learning.

Learning ecosystems may not be widely available today, but they are far from a mere theoretical concept. Early instances have been around in certain regions for about a decade. For example, VLACS is a state-wide virtual school in New Hampshire that enables learners to earn credit not only through the school’s courses but also through projects and experiences such as travel and work. RESCHOOL is a nonprofit that provides families in Colorado with guidance to learn about and navigate learning opportunities both within and beyond schools. Similarly, Louisiana’s Supplemental Course Academy enables students across the state to take and earn credit through both online and in-person courses from a variety of providers including online curriculum companies, colleges, and trade organizations.

Could these programs grow over time to become staples of K–12 education? Or are they just experiments that serve niche needs and interests? Analysis based in innovation theory suggests that learning ecosystems can have broad appeal, but only after they travel down a strategically chosen innovation trajectory.

Integrated vs. non-integrated systems

My last post explained that schools are integrated systems, which gives them the inherent ability to coordinate lots of moving parts (facilities, staff, curriculum, schedules, bussing, etc.) to provide a comprehensive schooling experience. In contrast, learning ecosystems are non-integrated systems that hand off different aspects of K–12 education between one another. Why do these categories matter? Because different architectures are best suited to different needs. Integrated architectures optimize functionality and reliability. In contrast, non-integrated architectures optimize flexibility and customizability

Consider an example from outside of education. Apple builds largely integrated architectures across its products and services so that it can offer a highly functional and reliable user experience. Apple’s AirPods bluetooth headphones switch smoothly between an iPhone, a Macbook, and an iPad because Apple designs all of these devices and their interfaces, and can therefore optimize how they work together. If devices malfunction, Apple’s Genius Bar has troubleshooting services and software optimized for its particular devices.

In contrast, devices that run Microsoft Windows have a far less integrated architecture. While Microsoft supplies the Windows operating system, the physical devices that run Windows hail from a wide array of suppliers like Dell, HP, Lenovo, Asus, and Microsoft. Whether you want a machine with a high-end graphics card for gaming or a super cheap computer that just needs to run basic applications, you have many more options, design styles, and price points with Windows-based machines. And there are many specialty software applications for Windows machines that aren’t available for Macs. 

Shifting the basis of demand

The tradeoffs inherent in integrated vs. non-integrated systems are not just static approaches for appealing to different customer segments, however. Innovation research shows that, over time, certain improvements in non-integrated systems can shift how customers weigh their tradeoffs. In the 1980s when desktop computers were new, Apple—the most integrated company—made the best desktop computers. They were easier to use and crashed much less often than computers of non-integrated design. But, over time, as non-integrated systems improved, they eventually caught up to Apple’s functionality and reliability. In the 1990s, when the functionality of desktop machines became good enough, the non-integrated, open-standard architecture of Windows-based machines became dominant. Apple’s proprietary architecture, which in the not-good-enough circumstance was a strength, became a disadvantage in the more-than-good-enough circumstance. 

Fast forward to the present, and the newness of mobile and wearable devices has given Apple the advantage again. It leverages its integrated approach to deliver the cross-device functionality and reliability that consumers demand. But innovation theory predicts that, over time, less-integrated designers of mobile and wearable devices will increasingly appeal to Apple’s current customers. As the functionality and reliability of non-integrated suppliers gets good enough, demand shifts toward customization.

Which learners will want learning ecosystems?

What do the tradeoffs between integrated and non-integrated architectures mean for K–12 education? Right now, non-integrated learning ecosystems only appeal to a small subset of families who are willing to give up the functionality and reliability of a school experience to instead have greater flexibility and customization. Most learners and their families, in contrast, still want a school that can ensure basic functionality and reliability when it comes to schools’ core value propositions. Schools offer reliable custodial care from 8 am to 3 pm for 9 months of the year; transportation to and from school; two meals during the school day; and the complete set of courses students need to earn a diploma and apply to college. If you’re a busy parent that doesn’t have a lot of time or expertise to research the options in a learning ecosystem, plus coordinate and negotiate the logistics for your child’s education, you’ll probably opt for your child to just attend a school. You’ll appreciate that, at a school, all the basic services your child needs will be taken care of. 

For now, the unique opportunities available through learning ecosystems differentiate them from schools and appeal to a small subset of learners and families. But learning ecosystems will never be viable mainstream alternatives to schooling unless they get good enough at functionality and reliability as well. People generally don’t switch to non-integrated systems because their values change. Rather, they switch after non-integrated systems improve over time and start to get “good enough” at offering comparable functionality and reliability.

Today, most of the conversations about the potential for learning ecosystems focus on increasing the supply, diversity, and quality of custom experiences. But learning ecosystem proponents may be inadvertently shooting themselves in the foot if the quest to increase their customizability leads to routinely underinvesting in functionality and reliability.

In my next post, I’ll offer a deeper exploration of what the improvement trajectory toward functionality and reliability might look like for learning ecosystems.

Other posts in this series can be found below:

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.