Coming to Your Child’s School, Very, Very Soon: A Christensen-Style Disruption!

Teachers, materials, students — the big 3 of K–12. Materials (1-to-1, OER-based textbooks) are changing dramatically, but teachers and teaching is about to be disrupted in the Christensen-sense. Machine learning will drive personalized learning into America’s schools. On that you can rely!


"No firm is immune from the coming disruption and every company must have a strategy to harness the powerful advantages … " Yawn. Enough already with the disruptions! We have been hearing about disruptions caused by the computer and by the Internet since Christensen coined the term in 1997.

  • Apple disrupted the music industry with iTunes selling individual tracks for 99 cents. Bye-bye CDs.
  • Netflix disrupted the rent-a-movie business with its streaming videos. Bye-bye DVDs.
  • Amazon disrupted the publishing industry.
  • Craig’s List disrupted the classified ads in print-based newspapers.

And on and onand on. But, while we may be tired from hearing about disruption — disruptions aren’t tired of happening!

And… TA DA… now, finally, YOUR child’s school is about to be disrupted!  "WHOA WHOA… Not so fast. My child’s school, disrupted? K-12 worked for me so it should work for my child. I am not so sure I want this disruption!"

Ahem, sorry, it doesn’t really matter what you want; without question, K-12 — and that means your child’s school — is about to be disrupted — hugely!  Read on, please.

A quick review: Here’s a description of a Christensen-style disruption from Christensen, himself:

  • "Disruption describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses. Specifically, as incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most demanding (and usually most profitable) customers, they exceed the needs of some segments and ignore the needs of others. Entrants that prove disruptive begin by successfully targeting those overlooked segments, gaining a foothold by delivering more-suitable functionality — frequently at a lower price. Incumbents, chasing higher profitability in more-demanding segments, tend not to respond vigorously. Entrants then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove their early success. When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume, disruption has occurred."

Yes, K-12 isn’t a business in the strictest sense… but in another sense, K-12 is very much a business: it delivers a service at a price. If that service can be delivered at a lower cost and be more effective… well, bye-bye CDs/DVDs!

Up to now, K-12 has not experienced serious disruption. Yes, we have charter schools and that may well have felt "disruptive."  But, the charter school disruption is not a Christensen-style disruption: generally speaking, charter schools haven’t delivered better education at a lower cost.  

But, buckle up, sports fans! The pace of Christensen-style disruption in K-12 is about to hit "5G" speeds! (5G is about 10 to 100 times faster than 4G.) Why now? Easy-peasy: machine learning. Machine learning is passing an inflection point — it is crossing over from being an academic, curiosity technology to being a commercially viable, disruptive technology. Huge investments are being made in virtually every industry in exploring the role that machine learning can play in that industry. And, for better or worse, K-12 is one of those industries where huge investments in machine learning are being made.

(Are the claims for machine learning "fake news?" We don’t think so. Is machine learning the Holy Grail? We don’t think so. See a previous blog post where we distinguished between "artificial intelligence" and "machine learning," and where we identify machine learning’s key weakness: machine learning can’t explain "why.")

Back to K-12: Now, at the 30,000 foot level, there are 3 key components in the K-12 system: Teachers, Students, and Materials. (Yes, there are administrators and parents and janitors and … but let’s focus on the key 3 elements for this short blog.)

  • Only 1 element of the 3 is being disrupted in the Christensen-sense of the term. Guess which one? Duh: TEACHERS!
  • Materials are being transformed, but not disrupted, as we explain below.
  • And Students? What’s going to happen to our children?!  

Teachers: It is well known that teachers — humans — are the most costly elements in the schools’ budgets. While the figures vary from state to state, about 80% (Figure 2) of public school budgets go to pay teachers’ salaries and benefits. Thus, to reduce costs, get rid of teachers. Indeed, we have reported before about the money that the Carpe Diem Schools in Arizona and Indianapolis have claimed to save when they moved to a "personalized learning" model. By needing only 4 teachers, and some aides, for roughly 200 students, Carpe Diem schools reduced their cost from about $8000/student to $5300/student — a reduction of about 33%. (See a report of a 25% savings due to personalized learning.)

There are several different types of "personalized learning" in K-12. The type referred to here — the kind that is delivering a Christensen-style disruption in K-12 — is also called “adaptive learning.”

  • "Adaptive learning is a computer-based and/or online educational system that modifies the presentation of material in response to student performance. Best-of-breed systems capture fine-grained data [in real-time] and use learning analytics to enable human tailoring of responses."

From Dreambox website, a purveyor of adaptive learning

While "some" (e.g., CN & ES) might argue that there is simply no way for machine learning to make adaptive learning really effective, we hasten to remind those "some" that in the history of disruptions, usually the disrupting technology is, at the outset, only so-so good. But, the cost savings are such that those developing the technology stick with it… and eventually develop really effective technology. (Example: The early Japanese cars that arrived on America’s shores weren’t the greatest — and the American car industry pooh-poohed them. The early digital cameras, also from Japan, weren’t really the greatest either. Over the time, both industries perfected their products and the rest is, as they say, history.)

Indeed, studies (e.g., Dreambox) are appearing that show that adaptive learning does deliver increased test scores. Now not much is reported about reducing costs — and ultimately about reducing teachers. Clearly that is a sensitive political point. But, make no mistake: as adaptive learning — using machine learning techniques — finds test-score nirvana at a lower cost, that info will soon be trumpeted about.

Oh, did we mention that the Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis lost its charter in 2017"… and the flagship Yuma school is struggling to reach full enrollment." Maybe CN and ES are not alone. (Sorry, for being so cheeky! It’s hard to resist.)

The real question is this: what percentage of instruction can be relegated to personalized learning ala machine learning? Certainly early math, where Dreambox has had success, is ripe for personalized learning disruption. And, "cognitive tutors" which use a form of adaptive learning, and are used in more intellectual areas (e.g., algebra, geometry) will continue to improve. Is there a limit? Unclear at this point.

Materials: In the Christensen dogma, the fact that a Chromebook is comparable in cost to a pair of sneakers, is just "sustaining innovation" at work. Technology gets incrementally better — but not disruptively better. (Android phones at $30 apiece, on the other hand, is a Christensen-style disruption however — as those in the "Global South" are experiencing.) Now, just as charter schools are disrupting — significantly transforming — public education, the availability of such low-cost computing devices is disrupting — significantly transforming — classrooms. Finally, using her/his own Internet-connected computing device, a learner herself/himself can look up an answer or explore an issue herself/himself; yes, that is a significant transformation in the classroom. And while that transformation is not a Christensen-style disruption, it is a most welcome disruption nonetheless!

And while OER-based textbooks are replacing paper-based textbooks, again, that is an example of sustaining innovation. Instead of paper-based textbooks, we have PDF-based textbooks. Yes, the cost to the schools is significantly less, typically. But there is still sincere cost involved in producing a quality OER-based textbook. And, further transformations are in the works, e.g., there is definitely a movement from simply providing digitized materials to employing deeply-digital materials, materials that truly take advantage of the underlying computing engine.  Again, not every transformation needs to be a Christensen-style disruption in order to be highly effective!   

Students: The question is: what jobs are we preparing our children to take? In 1995 — just at the beginning of the Internet "revolution" Jeremy Rifkin wrote a book entitled "The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era." Prescient, wouldn’t you say? The issue of schools preparing our children for the future is not a topic to be tackled at the end of a blog post. Fear not, we will return to that issue in a future installment!

We end this blog post as we began: "No firm is immune from the coming disruption …" Machine learning techniques underlying personalized learning will disrupt, in the Christensen-sense, your child’s school in the near term. You can take that prediction to the bank!