I had the opportunity to speak with a doctoral class on systemic education reform at UC Berkeley a couple weeks back. I briefly walked them through the core constructs of the theory of disruptive innovation, as well as how online learning fits into that theory. We then had an engaging 45-minute discussion.

We talked through the areas of nonconsumption where we are seeing online learning take off, and one of the women, an assistant principal at a high school, in the class spoke about how she was using online learning in her school for credit recovery in classic disruptive fashion.

And just like most disruptive innovations, she said, it wasn’t as good as the traditional face-to-face classroom experience. I started to protest and say that studies were suggesting that online learning was no worse and often better than traditional face-to-face classrooms—and besides, think about the transformational possibilities(!), but then I stopped.

I was missing the point, she said. It wasn’t as good because it wasn’t as rich or penetrating. For example, the students in an online credit recovery English class might not read the same literature as they would in the traditional one, but she said that she wasn’t disparaging that; in fact, it provided them with great lessons in grammar, but this was not the point either. Whether it was the same or better than the original was the wrong question (I pause here to observe that in many online credit recovery programs this would not be the case, but it seems that in the program they had chosen this was the reality).

Putting her words through the prism of our language on innovation, she said that the “Job to be Done” in credit recovery was not to provide the most engaging possible learning experience, but instead to allow students who had failed a course and needed to make it up to graduate to do just that no matter what it took so that they could go to nursing school or whatever other future experience lay before them that would be closed off without that high school diploma. The second time around the class was much more transactional, and that was just fine–and in fact an important attribute.

I’m still contemplating the implications of this, but suffice to say it has given me pause and made me think about one of the central points of disruptive innovation that is so important to grasp, which is that quality is relative (as I blogged about last week).

I thought about this as well when I read the following two articles in Education Week recently—one titled “Districts Embracing Online Credit-Recovery Options”, which discusses how New York City, Boston, and Chicago are finally coming to this game (see Tom Vander Ark’s blog for a bit more perspective on this) and one that was a blog by Katie Ash titled “eLearning Update: The Rise of Credit Recovery.” Granted, some of the commentary is not the most informed and misses the greater possibility of online learning in my view, but what if they were 100 percent accurate? Would we be doing to a disruptive innovation precisely what we are not supposed to do and stifling it from improving as it grows by asking the wrong question at the outset when the alternative in these circumstances is literally nothing at all—and the online credit recovery is infinitely better than that?


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

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