How new funding models can unlock innovations in pedagogy


Jan 14, 2015

Last week the Louisiana Department of Education announced that the state’s Course Choice program, originally created back in 2012, has seen a major boost in enrollments. This eight-fold enrollment expansion is due to the state’s increased funding that brokered a $7.5 million enhancement to the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP). In a macro sense, it’s also due to the forces that underlie disruptive innovation in online learning. And this particular disruption stands to pave the way for more student-centered approaches to school as we know it.

Course Access policies across various states are altering school funding formulas so that education dollars follow students down to the course level. This in turn gives students the chance to enroll in online, blended, or dual enrollment college courses that are otherwise not offered at their brick-and-mortar schools. As I’ve written about before, this policy is a key lever to expanding students’ horizons by offering students access to courses that they otherwise would not be able to take and leveling access to courses regardless of students’ zip codes.

As such, in disruptive innovation terms, Course Access policies directly target nonconsumption in U.S. education. Pockets of nonconsumption serve as footholds for new-market disruptive innovations: these are pockets of a market or system where new entrants don’t have to compete with existing providers and where consumers’ alternative is nothing at all. For example, when Sony introduced its first transistor pocket radios, it sold them to teenagers who had nothing at all, rather than adults who already owned RCA’s tabletop radios. And when Apple introduced its early personal computer, the device was not good enough to compete against the mainframes and minicomputers of the time, so Apple didn’t try to compete head–on: it sold the personal computer as a toy for children and hobbyists. Ultimately, of course, the personal computer disrupted the market for larger computers.

One of Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn’s key insights in Disrupting Class was that the U.S. schools’ factory-based model resists disruption in part because there is very little nonconsumption in our K–12 education system, which has by and large successfully enforced compulsory education policies. Rather, pockets of nonconsumption exist one-level down from the school building at the course or class level (hence the book’s title). Be it access to advanced courses or electives like foreign languages or personal finance, it’s virtually impossible for all schools to offer all courses, particularly when funding is scarce. Students, then, may find themselves “consuming” school, but may indeed be nonconsumers of courses that could potentially support their needs, interests, and ambitions. Course Access, then, goes at these pockets of nonconumpstion by ensuring that all students can take high-quality courses both within and beyond their brick-and-mortar school.

In addition to expanding access, by targeting areas of nonconsumption, Course Access policies may be paving the way to wholly new learning experiences for students. Just as the transistor radio and personal computer supported entirely new circumstances for using communications and computing technologies, some online- and blended-learning options can expose students to innovations in pedagogy and new paradigms in schooling. First and foremost, such courses often allow students to move at their own pace, rather than being based on seat time or a cohort-wide average pace. Some online and blended courses are also reimagining how to combine online content and face-to-face adult supports. For example, Amplify’s AP Computer Science MOOC plus Coach course offers a fully online MOOC, but pairs this with an in-person coach (who is often not a computer science expert) to help motivate and support students in the course. Other online courses actually expand the chance for students to do projects in their communities in ways that brick-and-mortar schools sometimes struggle to offer at scale. For example, in New Hampshire, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School’s (VLACS) program, Aspire, plans to include experiential service learning opportunities in their communities as part of their competency-based online course offerings.

Of course, altering funding inputs doesn’t necessarily generate these innovative, student-centered outputs—to get there, Course Access funding formulas should incentivize online and blended providers to create courses that are not simply digitizing our factory-based system. These formulas should also include performance-based funding that funds providers in the Course Access system based on student outcomes and growth, rather than merely on enrollment. Getting these incentives right can make Course Access policies an R&D engine for new educational paradigms, while radically expanding Course Access for students whose current alternative is nothing at all.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.