Education Next released a press release about Institute founders Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn’s article in its Summer 2008 issue. In the article, the authors talk about how computer-based learning is poised to transform public education. Click here to view the press release, or continue reading here.

May 6, 2008

Contact: Michael B. Horn, Innosight Institute, (617) 393-4517STANFORD — Computer-based learning is on the cusp of transforming traditional public education, say Harvard Business School’s Clayton M. Christensen and his colleague Michael B. Horn in the summer 2008 issue of Education Next. Based on their analysis of data on enrollments, about half of all education courses will be delivered online in just over a decade’s time.

In 2007, roughly 1 million students were enrolled in online courses–an increase 22 times greater than in 2000 but still representing only about 1 percent of all education courses nationally. By using a substitution curve to mathematically predict the pace of adoption, however, Christensen and Horn suggest that in about six years 10 percent of all courses will be computer-based, and by 2019 about 50 percent of courses will be delivered online.

“After a long period of incubation, the world will be poised to begin adopting computer-based learning at a much more rapid pace,” explain Christensen and Horn.

Why the sudden change? Computer-based learning possesses technological and economic advantages–including customized learning and low-cost delivery–that will end-run the traditional public education model.

While estimates vary depending on circumstance, many current online education providers have costs that range from $200 to $600 per course, far less than the current public education model. And technologically, computer-based learning has the potential to scale quality with relative ease–a powerful advantage.

More than twenty-five states now have organizations providing web-based courses. In 2006-07, one-third of high school seniors in Utah took a class online through the state’s Electronic High School last year; 52,000 students were served by the Florida Virtual School and 4,600 students were enrolled in the Georgia Virtual School.

A new national poll from Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University (PEPG) shows that a majority of Americans favor using public funds to support online courses that enable students to take advanced coursework or to help students in rural schools get access to a broader range of courses. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed said they would be willing to let their child take a high school course on line for credit. These findings are part of a larger survey on public attitudes about education conducted by Education Next and PEPG and are currently available here. The complete findings from the poll will be released in the fall 2008 issue of Education Next.

For computer-based learning to transform education, say Christensen and Horn, it must be implemented disruptively, not by competing against the existing system but by serving students who cannot currently receive the courses they desire.

There are many pockets of non-consumption in public education where students would benefit from online learning rather than face the alternative–nothing at all. For example, 33 percent of schools nationwide offered no Advanced Placement (AP) classes in 2002–03 (according to a 2005 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. Those that do provide AP courses only offer a fraction of the 34 courses for which AP exams are available.

Online courses may also serve high school drop-outs, who wish to continue their education but not in their local high school. And students who fail a class often find no remedial option available, but an online course could fill that gap.

Christiansen and Horn offer other examples where online education could fill gaps. Smaller, rural schools, for example, often have limited resources and, as a result, struggle to offer a broad curriculum to their students. And many of the nation’s approximately 2 million students who are homeschooled could greatly benefit, if online courses were more widespread.

“A disruptive innovation extends its benefits to people who, for one reason or another, are unable to consume the original product,” the researchers explain. “Disruptive innovations tend to be simpler and more affordable than existing products. This allows them to take root in simple, undemanding applications within a new market or arena of competition.”

“Disruptions rely on asymmetric motivation,” Christensen and Horn explain, “in this case, taking on courses that the traditional system is relieved not to do and happy to hand off.”

For computer-based learning to maximize its impact, the education software business may need to develop alternative distribution channels to reach students. Education software may first appear most frequently in areas such as personal tutoring, home schooling, and afterschool programs. A student struggling with a certain concept, or his parent or teacher, will be able to log on to a web site and find a software solution that another student, parent, or teacher has developed. Already, Wikipedia is providing students with easy access to “free” but nonetheless fairly high quality information to draw upon for school-related projects. The idea is likely to spread into other domains. Students will teach students, parents will teach parents, and teachers will teach teachers. Parents and teachers will be able to diagnose why children are not learning and find customized instructional software to help them. And with users building the content and using open source tools, the software will be far less expensive than if it had been commercially developed from scratch.

“How Do We Transform Our Schools?” is also available in PDF form.

Clayton M. Christensen is the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School . Michael B. Horn is executive director of education at Innosight Institute. They are coauthors of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (McGraw-Hill, 2008).

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Caleb Offley, Project Manager
Office of Public Affairs
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-6010 (585) 319-4541


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.