Paul Peterson has a piece up on the Education Next site titled, “Three New Books on Virtual Education: Competitors or Complements?” His ultimate conclusion? They are complements to each other.

I agree with that big-picture conclusion. Full disclosure that I have not yet read Peterson’s new book, but I plan to do so soon, and Disrupting Class and Liberating Learning both have their strengths, weaknesses and omissions (in many cases those are appropriate and purposeful of course, but nevertheless). His description of Julie Young and Florida Virtual School’s (FLVS) navigation through the political “shoals” resonates and is something not contained in Disrupting Class; it also reflects the case study Innosight Institute did on FLVS.

I do have some disagreements with Peterson’s underlying arguments, however; I’ll address the ones with regards to our book in this post.

The first quibble is that he writes that we argue that virtual education will upend brick-and-mortar schools. We in fact argue that it will disrupt classrooms (hence the title), not schools. Although there is a small possibility of that happening, that’s not the argument we put forth in the book.

Second, Peterson writes that our “analysis runs thin when it is (sic) tries to explain how disruption will happen in an industry not subject to the vicissitudes of the market.” This has been a common criticism even though we have seen disruption take place in highly government-regulated and -controlled industries (U.S. Postal Service anyone?), and education is already an industry with significant for-profit participants. What is in fact stunning is how much the principles of disruptive innovation theory do explain precisely what is and is not happening in education today (and over time). We walk through this at length in Chapter 2 of the book; I won’t rehash that here. With regards to online learning, a potential disruptive innovation, just look at where it has gotten its start most effectively—in areas of nonconsumption. Classic ones that are predicted by the theory: credit recovery, dropout recovery, home-schooled students, advanced courses, among others. Rural schools have grabbed onto this first for the most part because they have more areas of nonconsumption because of their limited resources (see Chapter 4). And from this start, online learning is booming, particularly in high schools. It’s growing even faster there at the moment than in higher education where there is far more nonconsumption and less regulation (albeit from a smaller base given that it got its start later).

Where have been the greatest struggles for online learning? One has been when online learning has tried to take on the establishment head on in the form of virtual charters or otherwise (Liberating Learning chronicles some of these). That’s largely predicted by the theory and is not an anomaly. Districts are establishing full-time virtual schools themselves as a result. Some people get frustrated that existing classrooms won’t transform and largely use technology only as a sustaining innovation—if at all; that, too, is consistent with our theories, and we explain it in the book (see Chapter 3). Disrupting Class is light on how transformation might take place in elementary school. That’s because, to this point, we have not been able to identify nonconsumption or nonconsuming contexts in that realm. Entrepreneurs seem not to have spotted these areas either. Maybe they are there; maybe they aren’t.

Clayton Christensen has said that, consistent with the theories, disruption and, therefore, transformation are very difficult when there is a lack of nonconsumption or nonconsuming contexts. That’s why we see most of the growth of online learning right now happening in high schools. Indeed, the relative lack of nonconsumption in education in the United States (almost everyone attends school) is one of the key reasons I continue to believe that the most interesting disruptive innovations will come from developing countries (see mobile payments or off-grid clean energy). But where there is nonconsumption along with an enabling technology and an appropriate business model, disruptive innovation is taking hold and has the potential to transform; growth is not the problem at the moment in online learning. Just as the Japanese automakers were able to disrupt their Detroit counterparts despite the U.S. government erecting trade barriers and the like, it will happen here, too, just over an elongated time frame given the barriers and regulations—which, given the quality at the moment, is not a bad thing.

What I have come to believe is that just because the disruptive innovation, online learning, will grow, it does not automatically mean that a student-centric system will replace the monolithic one. The potential is there, but that’s something that is not a guarantee; politics will have a key impact on that end result. Liberating Learning, and I suspect Saving Schools, have some important insights here.

A key takeaway is that utilizing the power of disruptive innovation won’t be right for every circumstance, which is one of the strengths of the theory. In some cases, when someone is underserved (as opposed to un-served), sustaining innovations are what are needed. That doesn’t invalidate the theory of disruption, however, in this context. Quite the opposite; it holds true. Just because disruption is hard, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It also means that more thinking from different angles is important—hence the value of these additional books that make them complements to ours.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

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