Two weeks ago Education Week published an article about online teacher preparation programs. The article highlighted how, “most of the top 10 providers of education degrees offer at least one degree online leading to initial teacher certification.” The evidence in the article suggests that these programs may be disrupting traditional education schools.

So what makes these programs potentially disruptive? First, online schools are arguably of lower quality than traditional programs. In making this point, I want to note that perceived quality is what matters here. Actual quality of any teacher preparation program is hard to measure, but perceived quality is signaled by school rankings and brand recognition. Disruptive innovations are not breakthrough leaps forward in performance. Instead, they start off by offering lower-quality products or services with other benefits such as convenience and low cost.

Second, online programs are targeted at nonconsumers. As the article points out, online programs primarily serve “career changers and other individuals whose circumstances limit their ability to spend hours on campus.” When disruptive innovations enter a market, they do not target that market’s most demanding customers. Doing so would place them in a losing battle against the established market leaders. Instead, they get their start by targeting nonconsumers who are delighted by what the disruptor has to offer because their alternative is to settle for nothing.

Third, online-learning technology enables a lower-cost business model for purely online providers. The article lists online programs offered by both traditional schools of education as well as purely online providers. It also highlights that most of the traditional schools of education are now offering online learning in some form. It is important to note, however, that the when you compare the prices of the various online programs, those associated with traditional schools are more expensive. Education schools that are purely online avoid the huge costs associate with operating physical facilities. This means they can offer their programs at prices that just don’t make sense to traditional schools of education.

All of this evidence seems to suggest that online teacher preparations programs are disruptive to traditional schools of education. So does this mean the beginning of the end for the traditional schools? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not simple. There are other forces currently at play in the field of teacher preparation that add an interesting dynamic to this market. As online learning puts pressure on traditional schools of education from one direction, the entire teacher preparation field is simultaneously receiving pressure in a different direction from an increasing emphasis on measuring and dissecting teacher effectiveness. In an upcoming post I will comment on how the National Council on Teacher Quality is pushing the performance bar for teacher preparation programs.


  • 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.