K-12 Technology Trends

Disruptive Innovation in the Classroom

One expert discusses how disruptive innovations like online learning will change the way students learn and progress.

Disruption has several definitions in the English language, and not many of them positive in nature. A television commercial can disrupt a viewer; students can disrupt a class by talking out of turn; and the introduction of new technologies can disrupt traditional means of getting the job done. In each of these scenarios, the disruptive "factor" halts progress and creates complications that someone must deal with in order to get things moving in the right direction.

In the book Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (McGraw Hill, 2008), co-author Michael Horn puts a positive spin on disruption by examining how it will change the way students learn in the educational environment. Here, this executive director of education and co-founder of Innosight Institute, a think tank focused on how innovation can drive the answer to societal problems, Horn explains disruptive innovation and its relationship to education:

Bridget McCrea: What is disruptive technology?

Michael Horn: A disruptive technology, also known as a disruptive innovation, is an innovation that transforms an existing sector or creates a new one by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability, where before the product or service was complicated, expensive, and inaccessible. It's initially formed in a narrow foothold market that appears unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents.

McCrea: What are some examples of disruptive innovation?

Horn: The biggest one we're seeing broadly throughout education centers around online learning. It looks like a classic disruption in that the early "PowerPoint and an Internet connection" iterations of it were pretty clunky. Significant strides have been made in the online education world over the last few years, and it now reaches students who previously lacked access to quality courses, and those who need credit or dropout recovery options. As a result, online learning is now growing significantly, both in the K-12 and the higher education space.

McCrea: How about a more general example of disruptive innovation?

Horn: The personal computer is the classic example of a disruptive innovation. Before it came along, computing was done through mainframe or "mini computer" centers where an expert handled the task with punch cards. This was expensive, with the computers themselves costing about a quarter of a million dollars. And while the earliest personal computers couldn't handle complicated tasks, they did put computing at everyone's fingertips. Over time, this disruptive innovation has completely transformed the computing industry.

McCrea: What are the benefits of disruptive innovation in the K-12 space?

Horn: When you look at the nation's K-12 system, one of its biggest struggles it faces involves the standardized batch model testing process that conflicts with the fact that students learn in very different ways, and at differing paces. The exciting aspect of disruptive innovations such as online learning is that it helps education break out of that monolithic mold and over to a more "student-centric" system. Through online learning, students can proceed down different paths, thus creating a more constant, mastery-based environment based on competency models. This is an exciting transformation that's certain to lead to more upheaval of traditional systems over the next 10 years.

McCrea: What are the challenging aspects of disruptive innovation?

Horn: The fact that disruptive innovations have historically tripped up the existing institutions in any field. Digital Equipment Corporation was the mini-computer leader, for example, and was disrupted by Apple and IBM. Eventually, the entire mini-computer industry collapsed, proving that disruptive innovations are difficult for existing institutions to "catch." This challenge can be turned into opportunity in the educational field, where teachers and administrators can continue to run existing systems while simultaneously implementing disruptive innovations at the fringes--say, by benefitting students who aren't being served by our schools (through online education, for example). Such dexterity can be difficult and will present leadership and managerial challenges, but I'm optimistic that our schools can do it.

McCrea: What's your future outlook on disruptive innovation in education?

Horn: I think we're going to see a next-generation learning environment that allows students and educators to personalize their content and figure out which path is right for them. For example, Agilix Labs has a product called BrainHoney that begins to enable this and represents a step forward in this evolution. Where online learning was once a "distance" innovation, it's coming on strong in bricks-and-mortar K-12 schools. That's a significant shift that we'll start to see this year, and that will continue to accelerate in the future. The biggest growth will take place in the hybrid, face-to-face "bricks and clicks" learning environments (where students take some courses in traditional classrooms and some online). As more schools embrace and encourage such innovations, the disruption that occurs will change the way the world learns.

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