District transformation—help us discover the keys to success

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Jan 5, 2017

This post describes research I will conduct over the coming months to better understand how school districts can successfully transform mainstream instruction using blended learning. If you have suggestions regarding school systems I should look at as I undertake this research, please contact me at [email protected]

The new year is often a time for predictions. Articles and blog posts across the web examine emerging trends to forecast what lies ahead. But as Clayton Christensen has written, trying to predict the future merely by looking at data from the past is like “driving a car looking only at the rearview mirror.” We need good theory to foresee how the dynamics of the present will shape the future.

In 2008, Disrupting Class used the theory of disruptive innovation to make groundbreaking predictions about the future of education. The book’s key finding was that online learning would disrupt traditional K–12 classroom instruction as schools, teachers, parents, and students took advantage of the technology’s ability to address students’ individual learning needs.

Since the publication of Disrupting Class, online learning has steadily expanded its reach within K–12 education—often through blended-learning models that integrate online learning into brick-and-mortar classroom settings. But the disruptive story of online learning is far from complete.

The state of K–12 disruptive innovation

Over the last few years, school systems across the country have made substantial investments in broadband, devices, and software; and many schools are working to adopt some form of blended learning. But we are still far from seeing online learning bring about a ubiquitous transformation toward personalized, competency-based instruction. It may be a matter of time, but it seems in many ways that schools are not fundamentally upending the factory model.

One issue is that many schools investing in technology are not using online learning as a catalyst for personalization. They may replace hardcover textbooks with electronic textbooks, notepads with word processors, whiteboards with SMART boards, and paper-based gradebooks with online gradebooks, but they too often fail to use these technologies to change fundamentally their models of instruction. Most classrooms still operate the same as they have for close to a century—with students sitting through 50 minute lessons to learn the same material at the same pace. In effect, many schools are using fancier tools, but they are not taking full advantage of those tools to rethink some of their core assumptions about instruction.

Additionally, many of the popular models of blended learning have one foot in the world of online learning and one foot in the world of traditional instruction. As the Christensen Institute’s 2013 paper, “Is K–12 Blended Learning Disruptive?,” points out, some models of blended learning are hybrids. They use online learning as a supplement to traditional instruction, rather than as the primary modality for basic instruction. These models are important improvements over traditional instruction because students receive individualized instruction during the portion of the day when they learn online. But hybrids often miss many of the best features of personalization—such as competency-based instruction and project-based learning—because students still spend most of the school day in single-paced, whole-class lessons.

Furthermore, policy does not offer school systems the right incentives to disrupt traditional instruction. States pay schools for student enrollments, not student success; require schools to award credits based on seat-time, not mastery of academic content; and focus their accountability systems on getting all students to common proficiency benchmarks, rather than on pushing each student’s individual learning growth.

Even with investment in technology, most schools are still a long way from disrupting the industrial model of instruction.

The work ahead

One key insight from the theory of disruptive innovation is that transforming a sector is not just a matter of getting the technology right. Many organizations across a wide range of sectors have floundered in adopting disruptive innovations—not because the technology’s potential was unclear, but because the organization’s internal processes and priorities kept it from aligning with the benefits the new technology offered.

For example, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), the leading minicomputer manufacturer of the 1970s, recognized that desktop computers were the way of the future and developed a few early desktop models. But DEC was ultimately left behind in the desktop computer era because its sales channels weren’t designed to make money on low-cost desktop machines and because early desktops weren’t good enough to meet the needs of its well-established minicomputer customer base.

A similar pattern is likely playing out for many schools and districts as they try to adopt disruptive models of blended learning. For example, moving to a competency-based grading system can be difficult when teachers, students, parents, and college admissions offices are all accustomed to A–F letter grades. Teachers may struggle with spending class time coaching students and managing projects when they are accustomed to delivering whole-class direct instruction. Students may have a hard time learning to manage self-directed learning experiences when they are used to having teachers tell them what to work on. To understand how online learning’s disruptive trajectory will play out in K–12 schools, we need to better understand the organizational dynamics of school systems.

Although organizational barriers within schools and districts can keep online learning from transforming traditional instruction, I am confident that with time online learning will prove the predictions of disruptive innovation theory to be true. In pockets across the country, pioneering school systems—such as Innovations Early College High School in Utah, the Lindsay Unified School District in California, and others—seem to be finding creative approaches to overcome existing barriers. Over the coming months, I will be studying these examples and others to better understand the approaches and circumstances that allow districts to overcome organizational barriers to transformation.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.