Disruptive innovations get their initial footing by providing a simple application that competes against nonconsumption. That is, they introduce a more accessible option for people whose alternative is nothing at all. The innovation presents a new value proposition and serves a purpose for those who find the original too expensive, complicated or inaccessible for their use.

Three weeks ago, I confess, my four young children, ages seven and under, became nonconsumers of school. My oldest dropped out of first grade and the next withdrew from kindergarten so that our family could relocate to the mainland after two years in Hawaii, where I had been telecommuting to Innosight Institute. We are still considering where to settle, and as we grapple with that decision from a temporary rental, I have kept my kids at home. To enroll them at the nearby public school during this brief transition, only to transplant them again when we finalize our move, seems unacceptably chaotic for them. But the alternative of nothing at all also feels like a setback.

Coincidentally, Innosight Institute published the “Providing ACCESS to Alabama” case study yesterday, which describes how Alabama has used online and distance learning to bring education options to students in rural Alabama, who previously lacked access to a wide variety of courses, including advanced placement, foreign languages, electives, and the like. I co-authored the case study with Andrew Trotter, and thus have spent the past several weeks thinking about how online learning can plug a hole for nonconsumers of quality education.

You can guess where I’m going with this. As my family embarked on our move, I realized that my children could benefit in a direct way from my research about Alabama. I decided to start with a trial membership with DreamBox Learning, which several education leaders have told me is one of their favorites for elementary students. Jeff Sandefer, who started the Acton Academy in Austin, Tex., especially spoke highly of it when Michael B. Horn and I interviewed him for a white paper about blended learning.

My seven- and five-year-old have been doing about 20 minutes of DreamBox math each day for three weeks. The lessons at that age begin by helping kids conceptualize numbers, using tools like a virtual abacus and ten frame. Because I’m juggling younger children while also attending to them, these two have had to work relatively independently, with my stepping in only if they have a problem or forget how to use the mouse. (I can sympathize with teachers who have trouble giving individual assistance to a classroom of 30 students!)


Today at IKEA my five-year-old kindergartener noticed a large, colorful abacus in the children’s area. She walked up to it and began showing me how to make numbers—20, 83, 56. She then demonstrated how to make 32 by taking 68 from 100. I was dumbfounded. She had never touched a real abacus before in her life. Her only exposure was from her three weeks with DreamBox math and its virtual abacus. I could not believe how much her conceptualization for the spatial relationship between numbers has shot up in this brief time and how well she was able to apply her virtual experience to the tangible abacus at IKEA.

Tune in later for my take on whether online learning has proven to be a positive disruption to my family’s traditional way of thinking about learning. I am eager to get my kids back in school, but in the meantime, I am excited about my experiment. I will not be surprised if now that I have started blending online learning into their education, I will not want to turn back.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.