Having taken an extended vacation the past few weeks, I returned to the United States to see that the pace of innovation in education is continuing at a breakneck pace.

From my perch, here’s a roundup of some of the more interesting happenings in that time:

Online learning in higher education
The announcement from Harvard that it was partnering with MIT to create edX caught a lot of people’s attention—and rightfully so. Some, however, such as University Ventures, have suggested that the initiative steers clear of the big disruption that’s needed in the sector.

University Ventures makes a good point (several of them actually in its letter), but what is interesting about the emergence of these programs that offer free courses with certificates is twofold.

First, it suggests that, in classic disruptive fashion, the disruption of higher education may come from completely outside our current system and obliterate the notion of a “degree” as we have known it altogether. In the future, there is a good chance that more and more companies will hire based on people’s portfolio of work and demonstrated competencies (many in Silicon Valley already do this), for which these sorts of micro-certificates and badges are tailor made. As a result, although they don’t tackle the high cost of degrees directly, if edX and others like it create a new ecosystem that, for many, renders a “degree” as we’ve known it irrelevant, they may end up solving the spiraling costs of higher education better than those efforts that take direct aim at the problem.

Second, and even more plausible perhaps, is that the emergence of the edXs of the world is systematically lowering the barriers of entry for other entrepreneurs, such as Gene Wade of UniversityNow, to create their own low-cost universities with low-cost degrees and add value by enhancing the educational process in other ways. This blog, by Lloyd Armstrong, the former provost of USC does a great job in framing the possibilities.

Khan Academy continues to disrupt class
MIT wasn’t only busy in the past few weeks announcing a partnership with Harvard. It also deepened its ties with the Khan Academy, as it announced that MIT students will create 5- to 10-minute videos for the Khan Academy. I’ve written before about how the Khan Academy is following the script from Chapter 5 of Disrupting Class in many ways, but the parallels continue to reach new heights.

The first step in creating a facilitated network that would ultimately lead to a student-centric learning system we said in our book might come from parents creating tutoring tools online to help their children—for example, the father of a mathematics genius daughter who struggles to spell might create a unique method to teach spelling to help her out on YouTube. We weren’t quite right; Sal Khan actually built tools to help his cousin in New Orleans with her math homework.

As we wrote, these “tools… make it so affordable and simple that each student can have a virtual tutor through these tools,” which is what the Khan Academy first did for many, particularly as it competed against nonconsumption in classic disruptive fashion.

“If history is any guide,” we said, “the best of these tools will spread in popularity very quickly, and exchanges will emerge through which this user-generated content can be offered to others for free.” The Khan Academy has become one of these exchanges; it isn’t only offering its tools, as it increasingly has third-party tools on its site from people like the MIT students with whom it is now partnering. We predicted that just as Netflix helps people find the movies that match their preferences, these exchanges will help people find the tools that help them best learn based on their different learning needs. The Khan Academy is also attempting to do just this.

“Over time,” we wrote, “the modules that students, parents, and teachers employ to help students solve individual learning problems in individual courses will be combined into complete custom- configured courses—the consummate purpose of modularity.” And this is precisely what we see occurring in blended-learning schools such as those in the Los Altos School District in California.

Arizona veto
Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill, Senate Bill 1259, that would have dramatically bolstered the potential of online learning to transform education in Arizona. Although I was initially disappointed when I read this, Brewer had a strong reason for vetoing the bill; she was concerned about the appropriateness of the state “or an entity on behalf of the state approving online courses or curriculum.”

Her concern is one that I shared.

In an effort to regulate quality, too many states are thinking that they should employ textbook-adoption-like processes to approve online courses on the front end. The problem is that, as we also wrote in Chapter 5 of Disrupting Class, the textbook-adoption process has provided a critical reinforcement for public education’s monolithic system and worked against the customization we need to bring about a student-centric system.

The whole point of online learning is to blow past the notion of one-size-fits-none courses and allow for a variety of approaches to serve different student needs. Perhaps this will remain a pipedream until facilitated networks like the Khan Academy are more mature, but I hope not. Given that a smart part of the Arizona legislation was to pay online providers in part based on actual student outcomes, a better role for states—or the third-party entity in the case of Arizona—would be to focus on maintaining a robust assessment environment that supports innovation, allows students to demonstrate competency through a variety of ways while maintaining quality, and ties funds to demonstration of those competencies. And if states insist on having online learning clearinghouses, they should also have other mechanisms to allow providers to enter the system–through districts, for example, as they do in Utah.

Maker Faire
The famous Maker Faire opens its “doors” in my hometown of San Mateo in just a few days, but there’s a whole new component to it this year focused on education, as educators can receive a preview of Maker Faire Bay Area on Thursday, May 17.

In particular, EdSurge with the Charter School Growth Fund is hosting “DIY Learning: The New School,” which promises to allow people to remake school completely and celebrate how “educators, students and entrepreneurs are using technology to put students at the center of learning—and help them construct personalized learning experiences that stimulate engagement, critical thinking skills and creativity.” There’s a great lineup of events, and, as Alex Hernandez blogged last week, a big opportunity to play out how a “Fab Lab” for education would work to give innovators a canvas and allow them to prototype in a low-cost, low-risk way—which has spurred innovation in so many other sectors.

Not a bad way to keep making the innovation.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.