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Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn Headshot

Virtual Learning Hits Campaign Trail

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Over the last month, we've seen the presidential campaigns blow a breath
of fresh air into the topic of education reform.

For starters, both campaigns finally began to talk about it. Education
reform was largely absent from the dialogue for the first several months
of the campaign despite a well-funded effort from the Gates and Broad
Foundations to make it otherwise. It took a July 16th speech by Senator
John McCain to the NAACP to jumpstart the conversation.

And when McCain started talking, we finally heard something new that
might move us beyond the tired debates around No Child Left Behind. We
learned that McCain supports virtual learning -- to the tune of $1
billion a year.

No Child Left Behind moved the goalposts in education -- it set new goals
for schools and helped shed transparency on the true state of our
nation's classrooms. But the law has not given the nation a strategy for
moving forward toward those lofty goals. This is where McCain's embrace
of virtual, or online, learning can help.

To see how, think about today's schools. They are designed to produce
standardization in the way they teach and test. Lumping students into
batches known as grades and teaching them the same uniform information --
a relic of a once-progressive factory-based system -- creates a
monolithic and ineffective teaching model.

And it's not simple to change. Interdependencies throughout the
instructional system -- from textbook and curricula adoption decisions to
teacher training to various regulations at the federal, state, and local
levels -- all serve to reinforce and perpetuate it.

Customization in this system is prohibitively expensive since the
economics of any interdependent system compel standardization. For
evidence, just look at Rhode Island. There it costs $9,269 a year to
educate a regular-education student, but it costs $22,893 a year to
deliver an individualized learning plan for a special-education student.

This would be fine if all students learned in the same manner and were
motivated by the same things. But, as most of us intuitively know, that
isn't the case. People learn differently from each other -- through
different methods, with different styles, and at different paces.
Different approaches propel different people.

If our country hopes to provide every child with a rich and complete
education, we won't get there through a standardized approach.
Customization is necessary. We need to break apart these
interdependencies and move to a student-centric, modular system that
will allow for affordable customization.

This is where virtual learning can lead the charge. Computer-based
learning is inherently modular and can be highly student-centric. It can
allow each student to learn in his or her preferred mode and at his or
her preferred pace, building motivation and engagement and improving
outcomes.

For virtual learning to have this transformative impact, however, it
must be implemented in the correct way. The theory of disruptive
innovation shows us a way forward.

A disruptive innovation transforms an industry not by competing against
the existing paradigm and serving existing customers, but by targeting
those who have no other option and are not being served -- people we call
non-consumers.

Little by little, disruptive innovations predictably improve. At some
point, they become good enough to handle more complicated problems -- and
then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

The key is that instead of simply cramming computers in the back of
classrooms as a tool of instruction as we have done in the past, we need
to allow computer-based learning to take root in places where the
alternative to computer-based learning is no learning at all. Only then
will computer-based learning have a true impact in transforming
education.

This is already beginning to take place, just as the theory of
disruption would predict. Online learning has gained traction in small,
rural, and urban schools unable to offer breadth; with home-schooled
students who traditionally chose from limited course offerings; and in
advanced and remedial courses that are not traditionally offered by
budget-bound schools that have to cater instruction to the "average"
student.

Led by these underserved populations, online enrollments have soared
from 45,000 in 2000 to 1 million today. Based on this growth and our
calculations, we predict that by 2019, 50 percent of all high school
courses will be delivered online.

At long last, we can see a path toward the change we've been seeking
desperately in our schools. Virtual learning presents a promising path
to move toward a student-centric learning system -- one that will
motivate students to maximize their human potential and realize their
most daring dreams. At least one of the presidential candidates has
climbed on board.

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B.
Horn are co-authors along with Curtis W. Johnson of Disrupting Class:
How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns
(McGraw-Hill, June 2008).