Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Heather Staker have a new paper on the coming transformation of K-12 education. Rather than displace traditional modes of instruction, online learning will co-exist with them in the medium-term, particularly for younger students. Online learning will be incorporated in such a way as to extend the viability of the existing business model of K-12 schools, in part because in the earlier grades, there is no non-consuming population that constitutes a potential market for truly disruptive low-cost online learning models, as virtually all children have access to publicly-financed schools. In the higher grades, however, online learning may well prove truly disruptive, e.g., online learning might prove more effective at meeting the needs of students who might otherwise drop out of high school, many of whom would prefer more flexible schedules that allow them to combine education or work or, in some cases, education and child-rearing.
Online learning has already had considerable success in meeting the needs of students interested in taking courses — AP courses, foreign language instruction — not available at local schools, a big source of the success of Alabama’s ACCESS program and the Florida Virtual School. This A La Carte model has a lot of room to grow:
In this model, students dispense with the traditional classroom altogether to take online courses in addition to their traditional courses. An online teacher is the teacher of record for the online courses—although schools can certainly make this an intentional part of their strategy—and in some cases even arm students with a variety of in-person supports, like mentors in e-learning cafes. The A La Carte model is the clearest case of pure disruption. Looking just at the course itself and not at the rest of a student’s experience, it often has no blended component; taken as a part of a student’s full schooling experience, it represents a student engaging in blended learning. It leaves no doubt that the traditional classroom is absent from the model because for fully online courses, students do not attend a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, even if some models offer students the ability to take the courses in cyber cafes or learning labs.
One of the most attractive aspects of the A La Carte model is that it lowers the barriers to instructional innovation. The charter school movement has achieved a good deal of success, yet building entirely new schools from scratch is a challenging proposition and the scope for competition is limited in regions with low population densities. Course-level choice allows teams of educators to specialize — we’re very good at teaching accounting, and we’ll stick to that rather than build an entirely new school – and online learning allows specialized instructional models to achieve scale — instead of hiring a run-of-the-mill accounting teacher, we’ll allow students to take the best accounting course in the country. Another advantage of course-level choice is that it has the potential to overcome the risk-aversion of parents and educators, as it doesn’t entail wholesale change and it can exist in jurisdictions that don’t permit much in the way of school choice. In an ideal world, however, course-level choice would encourage cost-consciousness, e.g., students who choose lower-cost instructional options would be rewarded with a share of the savings, which can be applied to college savings or extracurricular enrichment, as Burck Smith has proposed.