The emergence of online learning is transforming education by allowing us to personalize learning in ways that were impossible in the past. Because these technologies—and the new classroom models that best leverage them—are still evolving, it’s unclear what our educational system will look like in the future. New technologies entering the education ecosystem are often grouped under the common label of “online learning.” I have found it helpful, however, to categorize online-learning technologies into two distinct groups—instructional technologies and virtual interaction technologies—when contemplating the potential interfaces between teachers, technology, and physical space.

The first category of online-learning technologies is instructional technologies. This includes books, articles, photographs, audio recordings, and videos. In the last few decades, computers have augmented this list by making old forms of instructional technology more accessible via the Internet and by enabling new forms of interactive instructional technology. New tools, such as Khan Academy’s practice problems, Duo Lingo’s foreign language learning exercises, and reading comprehension activities from Newsela now provide learners with feedback as they practice using their knowledge and skills. Additionally, cutting-edge organizations are taking practice and feedback to a new level by leveraging data to personalize how they present content and activities to learners. Knewton’s adaptive learning platform and Carnegie Learning’s cognitive tutors are prominent examples.

The common feature of instructional technologies is that they interface directly with students to provide them with instruction. As an added benefit, many of these technologies also help teachers by delivering real-time data on student learning. Despite these benefits, instructional technologies do not replace the need for teachers. Instead, they take over some aspects of instruction and assessment so that teachers can focus more of their time and energy on high-value activities such as coaching individual students and building positive classroom cultures.

The second category of online-learning technologies is virtual interaction technologies. These include email, instant messaging, video conferencing, online white boards, and file sharing. Whereas instructional technologies have the potential to substitute for some aspects teachers’ jobs, virtual interaction technologies scale the availability of teachers. The advantage offered by these technologies is that they blur the constraints of time and space by allowing teachers and learners to share their ideas, work, and resources at any hour and from any location. In effect, they make good teachers a more fluid resource, thereby allowing them to better serve students’ needs.

A few examples are helpful for illustrating these benefits. Virtual schooling options, such as Florida Virtual School, allow students that struggle in a traditional school environment to learn from good teachers in settings that are more conducive to their well-being. Additionally, virtual schools provide students with access to less common courses—such as AP Computer Science or AP Mandarin—that are not available through their local schools. Additionally, virtual learning technologies allow students to get on-demand help as they learn, rather than having to wait to get help during scheduled class periods. Virtual tutoring services such as Think Through Learning have recently emerged to meet this need. (Note: Organizations such as Florida Virtual Schools and Think Through Learning actually integrate both instructional technologies and virtual interaction technologies in order to best serve their students.)

The distinctions between these two categories of technology are important as we consider how they can each be leveraged to redesign our educational models. First of all, the two forms of technology have different limitations in their capabilities. Instructional technologies can provide increasingly better individualized instruction, but they cannot yet provide coaching on higher-order skills, nor can they substitute for meaningful relationships between students and teachers. In contrast, virtual interaction technologies enable teachers to coach and mentor students across barriers of time and physical location. Additionally, neither technology has the ability to fulfill some important roles of traditional schools—such as providing socialization, meals, and child care. Secondly, these two forms of technology have different cost structures. The digital format of instructional technologies allows them to be distributed at very low marginal costs per additional student. In contrast, instruction that is based on virtual interaction technologies is inherently more expensive because real teachers are a key component. These distinctions are important as we think about how online learning can be incorporated into new educational models. Each type of technology has a different role to play in making our education system more personalized and in enabling us to better leverage the unique value provided by teachers.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.