Ed Tech Trends | Q&A

The Disruption of Blended Learning

Heather Staker: "The question ... is whether blended learning becomes a disruptive innovation to today's brick-and-mortar classrooms or a sustaining innovation for them."

Blended learning isn't like other technology-driven movements in education. It isn't about supporting current instructional models. In fact, just the opposite, according to researcher and education analyst Heather Staker: It's about eliminating the "monolithic, factory-based architecture of today's school system" altogether.

Staker is the senior research fellow and project manager for the education practice at the Innosight Institute. In "The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning: Profiles of Emerging Models," she and her team of researchers identified models for blended learning based on 40 existing programs and concluded that those models are "disruptive" in the way they bring innovation to schools. That is, they transform even as they improve teaching and learning.

"Disruptive innovations bring accessibility, affordability, and customization to sectors that before were complicated, expensive, and standardized," Staker told THE Journal. "Blended learning could bring a much more personalized, student-focused experience to brick-and-mortar classrooms across America."

In this interview, Staker also expanded on what such transformation could mean for both students and teachers and on what policymakers need to do to maintain the momentum blended learning has experienced in K-12 education to date--or risk it being co-opted back into the current "flawed" education model.

Definition of Blended Learning

For its report, the Innosight Institute defined blended learning as "any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace."

David Nagel: In what ways is blended learning an innovation for education? It what ways is it not that?

Heather Staker: The rise of online learning in supervised brick-and-mortar settings is certainly new. In 2000, roughly 45,000 K--12 students took an online course. But by 2010, over 4 million students were participating in some kind of formal online-learning program, and increasingly, these began to take place in physical school settings.

The question, however, is whether blended learning becomes a disruptive innovation to today's brick-and-mortar classrooms or a sustaining innovation for them. If the blending of online learning into schools takes place disruptively, it will transform the sector. Disruptive innovations bring accessibility, affordability, and customization to sectors that before were complicated, expensive, and standardized. Blended learning could bring a much more personalized, student-focused experience to brick-and-mortar classrooms across America.

The challenge, however, is that if blended learning is deployed as a sustaining innovation by going head-on against the incumbent system, the incumbent system will merge and morph it into its standard operations and it will not be transformative. It may still bring intriguing improvements to the traditional system, but its ability to update the fundamental school design will be lost. 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.

Nagel: Let's talk about the vocabulary of innovation. It's a focal point in education policy right now with hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money tied to it through programs like i3. It's being pushed heavily at every level. But, on a literal level, are we all speaking the same language when we discuss innovation? Where are some of the stumbling points we are running across or will run across in the discussions between policymakers and educators and administrators and business leaders when we talk about innovation? And can we establish--like you did with blended learning itself--a definition of innovation we can all use in the context of education--with clear delineations between what is sacred in education and what can be tossed aside as we move on?

Staker: This is a great question, because we at Innosight Institute believe that one of the reasons our schools struggle to improve is that the erstwhile leaders of diffuse attempts to improve schools have not shared a common language or a common way to frame the problem. Hence, in meeting after meeting where they debate solution after solution, the leaders have talked past each other--unable to communicate, let alone solve the problems. As a result, despite decades of trying, our efforts continue to sputter in developing and implementing a strategy that truly improves the cognitive abilities of the next-generation of Americans.

One of the most important things we do at Innosight Institute is to bring a common language to the discussion of innovation. A growing number of leaders--from governors to foundation leaders to key actors in education reform at the federal and local levels, as well as in think tanks with starkly different ideological views--agree that Disrupting Class, a book researched and written by Professor Clayton M. Christensen, noted scholar on innovation at the Harvard Business School, and Michael B. Horn, executive director of the Innosight Institute, is bringing a needed common language and consensus around the causes of the problems to be solved. As a result, we see a different set of leaders moving to the fore, who are more united in purpose, methods, and language to transform the U.S. educational system away from its current monolithic model toward a student-centric one.

In Disrupting Class, the authors introduce a more comprehensive understanding of innovation in the education sector and explain how education organizations can predictably succeed in innovation. The foundation of disruptive innovation theory is the idea that not all advancements are the same. In fact, innovation can be divided into two very different varieties. We call innovations that lead to performance improvement in the established market sustaining innovations. Airplanes that fly farther, computers that process faster, and cell phone batteries that last longer are all examples of sustaining innovations. In the education sector, calculators, overhead projectors, electronic white boards, digital textbooks, and charter schools are all sustaining innovations. They offer intriguing add-on to the established classroom system, but they do not transform it.

The second type of innovation is disruptive innovation. This is an innovation that transforms an existing sector--or creates a new one--by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, reliability, and affordability, where before the product or service was complicated, expensive, and inaccessible. It is initially formed in a narrow foothold market or niche that appears unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents. Examples of disruptive innovations are the personal computer, which disrupted the mainframe and minicomputers, as well as Toyota automobiles, which disrupted those of Ford and General Motors.

In education online learning appears to be a classic disruptive innovation. It has the potential to 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.

I think that the pioneering work that Clayton Christensen and his colleagues of done in developing a strikingly reliable set of theories about innovation has already helped inform and sharpen the conversation about transforming the education sector.

Nagel: What do you think are some of the key issues that are really driving the need for innovation in the delivery of education?

Staker: A core reason that so many students languish unmotivated in school or don't come to class at all is that schools aren't doing the job that students hire them to do. There are two main jobs that most students try to do every day: They want to feel successful and to have fun with friends. When the school system fails to help them find ways to feel successful, students lose interest and look elsewhere to fulfill that need.

The monolithic, factory-based architecture of today's school system means that students must conform to a one-size-fits-all approach. The system lacks the modularity and flexibility to optimize for each student's strengths. But this doesn't need to be the case. K-12 education is one of the few sectors of the economy--perhaps apart from mining operations and masseuse parlors, that the Internet has not yet radically transformed. This is about to change. Online learning bears the classic signs of a disruptive innovation, with all of the attendant power to 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.

Nagel: Your recent report spotlighted 40 blended learning programs and identified six emerging models for delivering it. What are the emerging models for blended learning that you consider innovative?

Staker: Blended learning by its very definition is innovative because all blended learning includes students experiencing online delivery with some element of control over time, place, path, and/or pace. This type of learning changes the classroom architecture from one that is teacher-driven and monolithic in to one that allows for individual pacing and access to content and experts far beyond the walls of the classroom. The question is not whether blended learning is innovative, but whether it takes the form of a disruptive or sustaining innovation.

Nagel: What models tend to be more mimicry of traditional practices?

Staker: Some of the organizations in this paper are pioneering exemplary blended programs and are on track to bring about disruptive innovations that will make the system more affordable, individualized, and competitive. But some of the programs in the paper are rather unimaginative and low end. I hope that policy makers will take the crucial steps to set the stage for a new approach to education that rewards excellence, leverages teaching talent, and personalizes the educational experience for students at all levels.

Nagel: What happens to the role of the teacher as blended learning evolves beyond even what the more innovative organizations are doing right now?

Staker: I like the concept behind Cornerstone Health High School, which will launch in Detroit this fall. The staffing design disaggregates the teacher role into three parts:

  1. Relevance Managers are connected to the real world and help their students engage in increasingly complex, relevant, and applied projects and internships.
  2. Rigor Managers are virtual faculty for the online coursework. They are the subject-matter experts. (Think Sal Khan of the Khan Academy.)
  3. Relationship Managers develop deep, mentoring relationships with students during their four years in school and the early years of college.

The idea that the teacher role is multi-dimensional rings true to me. I hope that in the future, teachers will be able to specialize in whatever suits them best--whether offering content expertise or the one-to-one coaching. Even in pure-play blended environments, teachers are crucial for learning--and the evidence is that teachers love working in online learning environments, whether they are blended or at a distance.

Nagel: Already online learning is tied pretty heavily with technologies that may be on their way out. Are online education providers and software publishers invested too heavily in traditional computing platforms to adapt when consumers are no longer interested in buying desktops or laptops?

Staker: Providers will have an easier time responding to market demand if policymakers create the right economic incentives and opportunities for them. For example, state leaders need to create funding models that allow fractional per-pupil funds to follow students down to the individual course, not just the full-time program. They need to eliminate bureaucratic, input-based provider approval policies and instead move to an output-based system, where operators are held strictly accountable for results. As part of this, policymakers should tie a portion of the per-pupil funds to individual student mastery, whereby states pay bonuses when students achieve mastery at an advanced academic level or students realize the biggest gains between pre- and post- assessment (so as to incentivize programs to serve students who have historically struggled the most).

Nagel: Are there dangers inherent in moving to blended learning?

Staker: There is a significant risk that the existing education system will co-opt online learning as it blends it into its current flawed model. Senior elected officials at the state level must set the right regulatory context for blended learning to realize its transformational promise of a high-quality, student-centric system that is more productive. If polices are in place that demand the right things--affordable quality focused around each individual student--then education technology companies and school operators will chase the right goals. After all, demand drives innovation, as suppliers focus on nailing the jobs that paying customers--in this case society through the government--prioritize.

Further details about the report can be found on the Innosight Institute's Education portal.