As I have previously written, there are six elements that are needed to implement an effective and efficient blended learning program. These elements are needed whether you are starting up a new school or whether you are transforming an established (traditional) school. Another way to look at this has been described by the Christensen Institute and their recent paper (2013) entitled, “Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive? An Introduction of the Theory of Hybrids.” In this paper they point out the differences between disruptive and sustaining innovations; and that, often, industries go through a hybrid stage “when they are in the middle of disruptive transformation.” When applied to schools, they predict that “hybrid schools which combine existing schools with new classroom models will be the dominant model of schooling in the U.S. in the future.” In addition, Michael Horn in this blogpost about the paper release, suggested that it “all depends” on a number of factors whether a blended learning school is disruptive.
In a recent related example, Clayton Christensen posits that the Harvard Business School moving to online learning is a sustaining innovation, and stated, “There have been a few companies that have survived disruption, but in every case they set up an independent business unit that let people learn how to play ball in the new game…” And then Michael Porter refuted Christensen’s claim saying, “giving away your most valuable asset for free –the best professors teaching the most desired classes in front of cameras to tens of thousands of people who often drop out of these courses–is no business model for the future…”
What I find interesting is that business academics continue to try and use examples from the business world and then apply them to education. Generally, education is its own entity – whether public or private – and not a business in the same way as a company such as Google or IBM or Ford Motor Company. As much as academics and business professionals would like to apply all business principles to education, it just does not work because of the multiple variables that exist in educating students. However, it continues to be thought provoking to apply business principles to education, especially when considering if a school is a disruptive or sustaining innovation. The Christensen Institute paper that defines what makes a blended learning initiative disruptive or sustaining is similar to how a traditional school transforms to blended learning and how a new charter schools opens with blended learning already in place. It is much easier to start a new school and make it blended than it is to transform a traditional public school to blended learning.
Examples of charter schools opening with blended learning as the expectation include Rocketship, Summit Schools and the KIPP Empower Academy. Each of these schools hired staff and put technology infrastructure in place to implement blended learning. Each of these would fit the “disruptive innovation” definition. In traditional school settings, a few places are beginning to disrupt schooling through blended learning such as the PASE Prep Academy within Southeastern High School in Detroit.
Other schools will remain as a “sustaining innovation” because it just takes too many resources to truly disrupt a traditional school system. As Christensen, Horn and Staker write in the paper,
A common misreading of the theory of disruptive innovation is that disruptive innovations are good and sustaining innovations are bad. This is false. Sustaining innovations are vital to a healthy and robust sector, as organizations strive to make better products or deliver better services to their best customers.
The confusion here is, can we apply this theory to education and consider students and parents our customers and truly make the distinction between disruptive and sustaining innovations? I’m not sure of the answer, but suffice it to say that it is easier for a new school or a new school within a school to create what may become a disruptive innovation than it is to transform a traditional school so that it becomes disruptive. This is what I think the book, Disrupting Class, illustrated so clearly. Traditional schools may reach the level of a sustaining innovation and this may be good enough to impact student achievement and cause more students to graduate and be college and career ready.