One of the core findings from our research on innovation is that technologies improve over time. We can see this happening with online and blended learning. For example, content is becoming more engaging, learning software is becoming more adaptive, and software providers are figuring out how to present more actionable data to educators. At the same time, schools are figuring out the operational logistics of running blended-learning models, improving the training they offer their teachers, and getting better at using data from learning software to inform face-to-face instruction. With these improvements, an important question that is sometimes overlooked, however, is whether the improvements are headed in the right direction.

My hope is that advances in online and blended learning will move us toward a student-centered education system. The tragedy of the factory-model classroom is that teachers cannot realistically meet all their students’ learning needs. This results in many students slipping between the cracks and achieving below their potential. In contrast, advances in blended learning should allow us to help all students achieve at high levels by providing each student with personalized learning experiences tailored to his or her individual learning needs. I worry, however, that we have not yet aligned the incentives in our current educational system to push innovations in the direction of student-centered learning.

The blended-learning models that offer the greatest potential for moving us toward student-centered learning are those identified in our research as disruptive models: Individual Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual. These models break away from the lock-step constraints of traditional education and make online learning the backbone of instruction. In doing so, they offer the greatest opportunities for advancing competency-based, personalized learning.

For schools that are working hard to improve student achievement in order to meet state accountability benchmarks, personalized learning should be a major advantage. Accordingly, accountability for student achievement should provide strong incentives for schools to figure out how to use blended learning to personalize instruction. But because the stakes are high for performing well in core subjects such as English language arts and math, schools that aim to use blended learning for core instruction often shy away from more disruptive models that are currently not as reliable and instead choose to implement hybrid blended-learning models that preserve the reliability of the traditional classroom. Using Rotation models to address core instruction is the right thing to do at this stage in the evolution of blended learning. But unfortunately, these models are limited in their ability to unlock student-centered learning.

In contrast, programs that address nonconsumption provide low-stakes opportunities for developing disruptive blended-learning models. Examples include credit-recovery centers for students who might otherwise become dropouts; à la carte AP, electives, and technical courses that some schools are unable to offer; and afterschool, summer school, and pre-school programs in places where such programs currently do not exist. Because the alternative to these programs is nothing at all, they have flexibility to experiment with disruptive blended-learning models that move away from the traditional classroom format. In fact, these are the places where we have seen many of the most innovative approaches to blended learning get their start.

Yet unfortunately, many of these programs seem to lack strong motivation to innovate toward unlocking substantial gains in student achievement through personalized learning. This is because they receive funding and continued authorization not based on student achievement results, but on enrollment numbers, course completions, or graduation rates—none of which are outcomes-based metrics. The result is that these programs can operate comfortably without having to worry too much about pushing hard for student learning gains.

Given this reality, I would argue that the best thing we can do right now to advance innovations in blended learning is to change the way we evaluate and fund the programs that address nonconsumption. We need to start rewarding these programs based on their outcomes, not their inputs. For example, states and districts contracting with online course providers might start to arrange to pay those providers in part based on student outcomes on state tests, AP exams, industry certification completions, or other outcome-based measures. Likewise, districts might make similar outcome-focused contractual arrangements for credit-recovery programs, after school tutoring programs, summer school programs, and other similar programs. These ideas may seem foreign at first because we traditionally have not funded education in this way. But new programs and new models offer new opportunities for reconsidering how we award funding.

Innovations develop along whichever trajectory leads to the most benefits for those that produce them, and producers typically benefit most by developing the types of innovations that meet the demands of their customers. In public education, our federal, state, and local governments and districts are the primary “customers” of innovations because they determine how education is funded. Given this reality, we need to make sure we are creating funding policies that reward the disruptive players in online and blended learning for producing the outcomes we really want.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    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.