Should Pennsylvania invest in sustaining or disruptive classrooms?


Oct 29, 2013

Testimony to the Pennsylvania House Education Committee
Public Hearing on Hybrid Learning
Heather Staker, on behalf of the Clayton Christensen Institute
October 21, 2013


Chairman Clymer, Chairman Roebuck, and Members of the Committee,

I had the pleasure of testifying to you on May 23rd in Lancaster County during the public hearing about Representative Aument’s online learning bill. I’m glad to return today to discuss a related topic, and that is the rise of blended learning and what it means for K−12 students in Pennsylvania. I hope that my perspective about blended learning will help clarify your investment strategy as you consider funding priorities moving forward.

As you may recall, when I presented in May we discussed how some innovations are sustaining and others are disruptive. Online learning is following the telltale pattern of a disruptive innovation. It is on a very different trajectory from sustaining innovations, which are the result of organizations improving their products and services to serve their existing customers even better. Batteries that last longer, jumbo jets that fly farther, television screens with sharper resolution—all are examples of sustaining innovations. In schools, we see sustaining innovations whenever teachers pioneer better lesson plans, schools deploy fancier technology, or districts improve school lunches. Sustaining innovations are crucial for improving the existing system.

Occasionally, however, along comes a disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovations get their start in simple applications at the bottom of the market or among those with no other option and then improve over time until eventually they displace established competitors. The rise of the personal computer is a classic example. When the computer first emerged, it took the form of huge mainframe computers that cost at least $2 million, which meant that only the largest corporations and universities could own them. But then disruptive innovation took the industry in a new direction. The first wave of disruption was the arrival of the minicomputer, which sold for $250,000 instead of $2 million and allowed smaller companies and institutions to own a computer. Then in the 1980s the personal computer released the next wave of disruption. It sold for $2,000 and at first was so crummy that Apple had to sell the personal computer as a toy for children. But it improved until eventually the minicomputer industry collapsed. Today we see handhelds very clearly disrupting personal computers.

Online learning is following the pattern of a disruptive innovation in a few ways. First, it began by serving those with no other viable option, such as students who needed credit recovery, homeschooled and homebound students, those without access to Advanced Placement and other courses, and high school dropouts. Second, it is following the growth pattern of a disruptive innovation; it crept into the education sector slowly as schools experimented with it until eventually it hit a tipping point and began growing more rapidly. The data suggests this growth will continue, such that by 2019, at least 50 percent of high school courses will take place online in some form or fashion. Third, like other successful disruptive innovations, online learning is improving over time to serve more people. One way that it is improving is by blending into brick-and-mortar schools. The field calls this blended learning, a term that describes any time students are learning at least in part online and at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar school setting away from home.


Is blended learning disruptive?
At this point in the discussion people often ask whether blended learning, then, is a disruptive innovation. The answer is hugely consequential. After all, sustaining innovations bring important improvements to the existing system, whereas disruptive innovations are on a trajectory to replace the existing system entirely, just as the personal computer did to mainframe and minicomputers. If blended learning is poised to disrupt the traditional classroom and replace schooling as we know it, wouldn’t it be nice to know?

It turns out that patterns of innovation from other sectors provide a helpful lens for understanding the rise of blended learning and what it means for schools. What we observe is that when a disruptive technology emerges, the leading organizations see it coming, but they do not want to abandon their focus on their main customers to offer a rudimentary solution for those at the margins. So rather than deploy the technology disruptively, they decide to combine it with their existing technology and create a “hybrid” that works for their existing customers. They hope the hybrid will deliver the best of both worlds.

To borrow from a very different industry, consider the rise of steam technology in the 1800s. When the steam engine first emerged, it was a disruptive technology that would one day crush the sailing ship industry. What did sailing ship companies do when they heard about steam? They did not want to ignore it, but they also couldn’t replace their sails with steam engines, because steam was not yet good enough to serve their main customers. Their customers focused on making long voyages across the wide oceans. Steam power was nowhere close to capable of powering a transoceanic voyage. So the old sail ship makers compromised and created a hybrid—a ship with both sails and a steam engine. In 1819, the hybrid vessel Savannah made the first Atlantic crossing powered by both forms.

The hybrid vessel was a sustaining solution for the old sail ship companies. It allowed them to serve their existing customers even better. As a rule, hybrid innovations are sustaining to the established system.

Meanwhile, pure steam-powered ships found a different, more disruptive foothold. It turns out that boaters traveling across lakes and rivers were immediately attracted to steam power because steam gave them the ability to power their boats in the absence of wind. As a result, steam power got its disruptive foothold in the inland waterway market. Soon steamboats dotted the rivers and lakes of America. By the early 1900s, steam-powered ships became good enough for transoceanic travel as well. Customers migrated from sailing ships to steam-powered ships, and every single sailing ship company went out of business.


Sustaining models of blended learning
So how does this apply to the rise of blended learning? We are seeing some striking parallels. Educators who manage traditional classrooms are in some ways similar to the sail-ship companies. They see the emergence of online learning but are hesitant to adopt it in its pure form because it does not meet the needs of their mainstream students as well as the traditional classroom does. So they develop a hybrid solution, which promises “the best of both worlds”—the advantages of the traditional classroom, combined with the benefits of online learning.

The mission of the Pennsylvania Hybrid Learning Initiative (PA HLI) is to bring hybrid models of blended learning to Pennsylvania classrooms. Most Rotation models and Flipped Classrooms fall within the “hybrid zone of blended learning.” They combine online learning with some of the basic features of the traditional classroom, such as teacher-led face-to-face instruction, the preservation of the traditional physical architecture of the school building, and roughly the same academic calendar. They typically serve mainstream students in core classes, such as math and reading, rather than serving students on the margins with no alternative. They tend to be less “foolproof” than purely disruptive models because they require classrooms teachers to master both the online and traditional face-to-face teaching formats.


Disruptive models of blended learning
Meanwhile, as sustaining, hybrid models of blended learning bring changes to traditional classrooms, a more fundamental transformation is taking place as the result of disruptive models of blended learning. These models, which include the Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual models, are replacing traditional classrooms with something entirely different. In many cases schools are literally tearing down walls to create wide open learning spaces. Online learning is the backbone of student learning, and the teacher role shifts to that of a guide and mentor. One rule of thumb is that if you can’t figure out where the front of the classroom is, it’s probably a disruptive model. Disruptive models tend to arise among students whose alternative is nothing. They are the credit recovery labs, dropout centers, and A La Carte online courses in high school e-learning lounges that students are experiencing across Pennsylvania.

One example of a disruptive implementation that is getting broad recognition is the Quakertown Community School District, which opened the Infinity Cyber Academy to offer A La Carte online courses. The district is in the process of rebuilding its high school with a large, open, cyber café to facilitate online coursework. The model is not a hybrid, as evidenced by the fact that it has very little in common with the traditional classroom.


Hybrid theory allows us to predict the future of the Pennsylvania Hybrid Learning Initiative and other hybrid programs. Like other breakthrough sustaining innovations, hybrid models have the potential to bring vital improvements to Pennsylvania’s traditional classrooms. They are introducing a much-needed, cost-effective way to provide differentiated instruction, and they are starting to improve academic performance. The majority of students will continue to learn in traditional classrooms for years to come, and hybrid models are proving capable of lifting those classrooms to a higher place. Furthermore, we do not see a disruptive foothold for disruptive blended learning models at the elementary school level. As a result, we think that hybrid models will be the big game changers for elementary schools, and disruptive implementations will be rare at that level.

At the same time, disruptive models of blended learning, such as the A La Carte courses at Quakertown, are getting better over time, such that they are enticing more students away from the traditional model. As they improve, disruptive models are on track to overtake the traditional model and become the dominant form of schooling over the long term. This bold prediction is true at the high school level, where there are ample opportunities for disruptive models to take root at the margins, such as for credit recovery and AP courses, and then gradually expand. The future of high school classrooms is very different from their current setup. Schools are by no means going away, but the learning model within those schools, particularly at the high school and to some extent middle school level, is changing dramatically.


I hope this context provides a lens to understand the potential of hybrid learning more clearly. As online learning blends into schools, in some cases it is sustaining the traditional classroom and in other cases it is replacing it with a disruptive alternative. This leads to two separate recommendations for you today:

First, invest in expanding successful, sustaining models of blended learning—those in the hybrid zone as discussed. Kevin Dellicker is testifying today about the results of the 33 Pennsylvania schools participating in hybrid pilots. Their results are in line with those of hundreds of other blended programs across the country. Many are generating breakthrough improvements in cost effectiveness, ability to individualize learning, and standardized test scores. One of the largest studies to date of a sustaining model of blended learning is a two-year, randomized control trial that the RAND Corporation and Department of Education conducted to measure the effectiveness of the Rotation model for Algebra I instruction. RAND selected a diverse population of more than 18,000 students in 147 schools in seven states for the study. Half the students experienced the rotation, while the other half learned without the online component. RAND’s report concluded that the Rotation blended-learning model boosted the average high school student’s performance by eight percentile points by year two, which equates roughly to doubling math learning in a year for those students. At a time when thousands of schools are struggling to close the achievement gap or boost overall learning, results such as these are significant. Every stakeholder with an interest in improving education has good reason to take hold of online learning and squeeze from it every possible sustaining improvement it can bring to the traditional classroom.

Typically across the nation, schools that are implementing a sustaining model need start-up funding to subsidize the transition. Pennsylvania’s Hybrid Learning Institute, with its investment in technology installation, digital content, operational support, and professional development, appears in line with the typical funding requirements we are seeing among organizations that are implementing Rotation models. By the same token, most programs are finding that after a brief window, they net out more financially efficient than before the blended-learning implementation. Well-implemented blended learning allows them to increase student-teacher ratios or otherwise increase productivity while simultaneously increasing small-group and individual face-to-face instruction. Any investment from the state should be smart about looking for and rewarding these savings. The investment should be a one-time, start-up fund to support the transition, not an ongoing subsidization.

Second, Pennsylvania needs to anticipate the future with disruptive models of blended learning. Districts like Quakertown have the right idea. Increasingly high school and middle school students are going to want course choice and a full range of A La Carte, online courses. Districts are going to find that if they do not know how to run an effective Flex school, they are falling behind. As policy leaders you play a crucial role in channeling the disruptive wave to its highest quality:

  • Continue to open opportunities for course choice, including allowing funding to follow students to the course level. But free up those courses from input requirements and instead make them transparent about and accountable for their results using end-of-course exams.
  • Take the next step with competency-based learning and abolish the idea of time-based credits entirely.
  • Include disruptive innovation as a strategic funding priority. Ohio’s new Straight-A Fund, which provides an unprecedented $250 million to incentivize new approaches, is a good example.
  • The general rule for advancing high quality innovation is to regulate around outcomes and results, rather than around mandating a certain type of classroom, textbook, learning process, instructional format, or teacher.


Pennsylvania has a strong foot in the game of cyber learning. As you move forward with your strategy, I encourage you to make investments that will leverage online learning both to sustain the traditional classroom with breakthrough improvements as well as to anticipate the future of schooling by prioritizing disruptive initiatives. Thank you.

Heather Staker

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.