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Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn

Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn

Posted: August 19, 2008 12:32 PM

Virtual Learning Hits Campaign Trail

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).

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