Online learning is a powerful technological enabler that can help many more students reach high levels of academic success. It allows us to truly differentiate instruction to meet students’ individual learning needs. It also transforms our models of instruction and the roles of teachers so that teachers can give more personal attention to their students. These benefits make online learning an exciting innovation. But sometimes, in our rush to capture the benefits of online learning, we confuse the goals with the means, and in doing so we hinder innovation.

In general, technologies develop over time to fulfill the jobs that we hire them to do. If smartphone customers want to watch movies and play realistic video games on their mobile phones, then phone manufacturers figure out how to pack phones with faster processors and bigger screens. If commuters want to effortlessly use the navigation and music streaming apps on their phones while they drive to work, then car manufactures figure out how to make their cars interface smoothly with smart phones. Innovations emerge and evolve to address the problems we hire them to solve.

The same holds true for innovations in the education sectors. For example, credit recovery centers did not adopt blended learning because of mandates that they use technology. Rather, they adopted blended learning because the students they serve have huge differences in their particular academic gaps. Individualized instruction through blended learning was a practical solution for addressing the large variation in students’ needs. Similarly, virtual schooling and supplemental online courses came into existence because some students were unable to attend brick-and-mortar settings and others students needed course options that were not available through their local schools.

At the Christensen Institute, we’ve predicted that programs serving nonconsumption of education in areas like credit recovery and supplemental courses will be the starting point for the eventual disruption of traditional classroom instruction. We expect these programs to improve over time until they are eventually adopted for mainstream education. Yet some of the blended-learning implementations that started in nonconsumption do not seem to be headed in that direction. For example, we don’t see many instances where mainstream students are pushing to enroll in their districts’ credit recovery programs. Similarly, many districts only offer a la carte blended-learning options to a handful of students with unique learning needs.

The reason these programs are not yet going mainstream is that most are not yet good enough to satisfy the demands and expectations of mainstream students, parents, and educators. Most teachers, parents, and students are still skeptical of whether these blended-learning programs can be better than learning in a traditional classroom. This skepticism may just indicate that blended learning needs more time to evolve and gain buy-in. But I would argue that these programs are not innovating in the right direction to gain mainstream attention because they don’t have the right incentives. In order to go mainstream, these programs need to demonstrate that they can offer engaging educational experiences that dramatically improve student learning. But through our state and local policies, we often fund these programs not based on student learning outcomes but on enrollment numbers, course completions, and graduation rates.

School districts and states that contract with these providers need to develop ways to make funding contingent on student outcomes. For example, districts might pay credit-recovery providers a portion of their total funding upfront for each student enrolled in the program, and then pay the remaining funds based on each students’ performance on an end-of-course exam. Similarly, districts and states might agree to pay online AP course providers based on students’ scores on AP exams. Clearly, there are additional complexities to these types of arrangements that need to be worked out. But by developing performance-based funding arrangements with online-learning providers, districts and states will be giving those providers the motivation they need to figure out how to leverage online learning to dramatically improve student achievement.

If we want to encourage innovations that move disruptive blended-learning models from nonconsumption to mainstream, then we need to change the problems that we are paying innovative providers to solve. Instead of focusing our policies on encouraging schools to adopt blended learning and competency-based learning (the means of personalization), we should instead focus on incentivizing them to improve student-learning outcomes (the goal of personalization). Additionally, we need to remove policies that artificially constrain innovators, such as seat time and letter-based grading requirements. With the right goals and incentives in place, providers will then be naturally motivated to figure out how to leverage the benefits of online learning to reach those goals.


  • 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.