Over a decade ago, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen took his theory of Disruptive Innovation from the boardroom to the K-12 classroom. Observing the rapid rise of online courses, he predicted that online learning would radically shift education in the 21st century. Since then, the U.S. K-12 edtech market has ballooned in the past decade to an estimated $7 billion. 

At its simplest, Disruptive Innovation theory describes how organizations harness technology to make a product or service more accessible to more people. Disruptive innovations start off simple and affordable. Over time, they improve to eventually overtake mainstream offerings. 

Online learning has followed suit. What began with coursework in hard-to-offer courses like Advanced Placement and credit recovery has now migrated into the mainstream classroom. Powered by adaptive software, taught by instructors halfway around the world, or uploaded by teachers building their own coursework, online learning is shattering the boundaries of traditional, monolithic approaches to K-12 instruction. 

We’ve spent the past decade at the Christensen Institute tracking those very innovations to understand how tech is—and sometimes still isn’t—transforming school.

As that wave of innovation crests, another is just beginning. We are ushering in a new decade of innovation that is still powered by technology, but offers a different value proposition. This new wave has less to do with just transforming how students learn, and instead has the potential to revolutionize how they connect—to experts, mentors, and peers. That’s a crucial distinction. These innovations are offering connections in circumstances where students’ lack access to relationships. They are opening up new channels to help students accrue what sociologists and economists call social capital—that is, the value contained in our networks. And over time, they stand to disrupt the boundaries that time and geography have long held on students’ networks.

Who students know matters

The power of connections is evident to any adult who has benefitted from a friend or acquaintance helping him find a job along his professional path. The same is true for students today. Research suggests that the networks that surround young people shape their career ambitions and pathways, regardless of students’ aptitude in particular disciplines. Relationships impact everything from students’ grades to persistence through high school, and with an estimated 50% of jobs coming through personal connections, who they know matters immensely. 

Schools, however, remain largely insular environments with human capital shortages of their own. Nationally, student-to-teacher ratios hover around 16:1 and student-to-guidance counselor ratios are a startling 482:1. And with limited time and strict budgets, few schools offer meaningful opportunities for students to connect with non-teacher adults and mentors in the real world. In short, despite the clear premium that relationships hold in today’s labor market, schools—society’s supposed ‘great equalizer’—are ill-designed to nurture and expand students’ networks. 

But, luckily, that is beginning to shift. New technologies are emerging that could make networking students at once affordable and feasible for schools. 

Expanding networks with technology

These network-expanding tools are cropping up in discrete pockets of the edtech market, like college guidance, project-based real-world learning, and academic supports. The common denominator? They are providing students with relationships otherwise out of reach. On tools like Nepris or Educurious, students can meet a neurosurgeon or an engineer on the other side of the country over video chat. On platforms like Student Success Agency, students can access a personal ‘agent’—often a role filled by college students–to receive personalized, on-demand college and career guidance around the clock. On platforms like Granny Cloud, students—particularly those with limited access to formal education—can access unconditional support and encouragement from a far-flung community of caring adults.

Many Disruptive Innovations, regardless of industry, follow the same pattern: they start off as simpler, seemingly “lower quality” applications targeted at consumers shut out of the existing market due to cost or access barriers. As a result, these innovations don’t compete head-to-head with leading companies and products, but instead compete against nonconsumption—where the only alternative is nothing at all

These pockets of nonconsumption offer footholds from which disruptors can then rapidly improve to serve increasingly demanding circumstances. Sony got its start with the flimsy Walkman before it offered sleek CD players; Southwest began on lesser-traveled intra-state routes before it sold low-cost cross-country flights; personal computers offered the chance to merely tinker before they eventually competed with powerful mainframes. Similarly, online networking tools hitting the edtech market rarely provide high-touch, close mentoring relationships that education systems might conventionally prize. But for students whose networking and guidance alternatives are limited or altogether nonexistent, these tools are revolutionary.

New connections compete on new dimensions 

Online connections can’t compete on traditional measures of performance like enduring and strong relationships, which students all need for healthy development. At first blush, the connections forged through these tools may seem underwhelming to schools. Interactions between experts and entire classrooms may be one-to-many unlike traditional one-to-one mentoring programs; the virtual interface of online guidance and mentoring can potentially hinder the depth of connection and empathy that face-to-face interactions afford; and some online interactions between students and adults last no longer than a single session. But these connections, as cursory as they may sound, are the seeds of disruption.

These seemingly rudimentary connections could prove far more valuable than meets the eye on a different dimension of performance. New technologies are diversifying less intimate connections in students’ lives. Although they may not deliver caring mentors, these tools stand to offer the distinct advantage of what sociologists call the “strength of weak ties”—that is, even relationships with less intimacy, trust, and familiarity can provide crucial, plentiful sources of new information and opportunities otherwise inaccessible through our immediate networks. 

In the past decade, we’ve seen how learning technologies have begun generating tectonic shifts in how the education sector now thinks about school as we know it. But the emergence of new networking tools suggests that in the next decade the disruptive potential of the edtech market is no longer confined to breakthroughs in online coursework, productivity tools, or adaptive software programs. Looking ahead, schools can begin to use edtech to connect; disrupting, over time, not just historical limits of how and when students learn, but also whom they know.