NOTE: We have released an updated categorization of the blended-learning models since the publication of this paper. Please see “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive?: An introduction of the theory of hybrids” for the most up-to-date taxonomy.
In Disrupting Class, the authors project that by 2019, 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online. This pattern of growth is characteristic of a disruptive innovation—an innovation that transforms a sector characterized by products or services that are complicated, expensive, inaccessible, and centralized into one with products or services that are simple, affordable, accessible, convenient, and often customizable. Think personal computers, the iPod and mp3s, Southwest Airlines, and TurboTax. At the beginning of any disruptive innovation, the new technology takes root in areas of nonconsumption—where the alternative is nothing at all, so the simple, new innovation is infinitely better. More users adopt it as the disruptive innovation predictably improves.
Online learning fits the pattern. It started by serving students in circumstances where there is no alternative for learning—in the advanced courses that many schools struggle to offer in- house; in small, rural, and urban schools that are unable to offer a broad set of courses with highly qualified teachers in certain subject areas; in remedial courses for students who need to recover credits to graduate; and with home-schooled and homebound students.
Nearly all of these instances tended to be in distance-learning environments initially—outside of a traditional school environment and removed from an in-person teacher. A simultaneous explosion in home schooling—from roughly 800,000 students in 1999 to roughly 2 million today—was fueled by the rise of online learning and full-time virtual schools.
There is a limit, however, to the number of students in America who have the ability to be home-schooled or attend a full-time virtual school. The same analysis that shows that 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online by 2019 reveals that home schooling and full-time virtual schooling will not substitute for mainstream schooling, as their rapid growth flattens out at around 10 percent of the K–12 schooling population.
In classic disruptive fashion, online learning is expanding beyond distance learning. Educators and entrepreneurs are increasingly creating blended-learning environments—where rather than doing the online learning at a distance, students learn online in an adult-supervised school environment for at least part of the time. At the outset, this occurred in areas of nonconsumption, such as credit-recovery labs and dropout-recovery schools. A small but growing number of schools, however, are now starting to introduce blended learning into their core programming for mainstream students.
Bleak budgets coupled with looming teacher shortages amidst an increasing demand for results are accelerating the growth of online learning into blended environments. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently described a “new normal,” where schools would have to do more with less. Blended learning is playing a vital role, as school operators begin to rethink the structure and delivery of education with the new realities of public funding.
The growth of online learning in brick-and-mortar schools carries with it a bigger opportunity that has not existed in the past with education technology, which has been treated as an add-on to the current education system and conventional classroom structure. Online learning has the potential to be a disruptive force that will transform the factory-like, monolithic structure that has dominated America’s schools into a new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive, as it delivers dramatically better results at the same or lower cost.
Policymakers and education leaders must adopt the right policies for this to happen. There is a significant risk that the existing education system will co-opt online learning as it blends it into its current flawed model—and, just as is the case now, too few students will receive an excellent education. State elected officials, district superintendents, and school principals must act now to prevent the cramming of online learning into the traditional system and to foster its transformative potential. As policymakers open the gates for innovation by creating zones with increased autonomy, they must simultaneously hold providers accountable for results so that the adoption of online learning leads to radically better outcomes for students.