Curriculum Chat

Disruptive Innovation in Education

Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn argue that each student needs a customized learning approach to maximize his or her potential because people learn differently from one another.

February 25, 2009

Disruptive Innovation in Education: A Conversation with Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn

  • Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn are authors of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

Michelle Davis (Moderator):

Good afternoon and welcome to Education Week’s Digital Directions’ live chat. Joining us today are Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn, authors of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. In the book, the authors predict that within a decade, half of all courses at the high school level will be delivered online and they argue that each student needs a customized learning approach to maximize his or her potential. I’m Michelle Davis, senior writer for Education Week’s Digital Directions, and I’ll be moderating this discussion. Last year, our guests also shared their views on individualized learning and technology in this Education Week commentary, How ‘Disruptive Innovation’ Will Change the Way We Learn. We’d like to thank the sponsor of this chat We’ve already got a lot of great questions lined up, so let’s get under way.

Question from John Jones, Program Coordinator for the Aspirnaut Initiative, Vanderbilt University:

Is there any evidence that suggests that an average student can be sufficiently motivated by a virtual teacher? What are the best known approaches to online teaching (e.g. totally self-directed vs consistent teacher interaction, games, etc)?

Clayton M. Christensen:

Thanks for your question. The work that you’re doing at the Aspirnaut Initiative is an exciting example of a disruptive innovation and something we have written a blog about that we’ll be posting soon on our Web site.

Much more research is needed to answer your question--not just to understand if a virtual teacher can motivate an “average” student, but what specifically that teacher might need to do to motivate different “average” students with different intelligences and motivations in different circumstances. The initial evidence suggests that, on average, students perform equally well if not better academically in an online-learning environment than a traditional one. To this point, a teacher has played a key role in the best online environments, and the best teachers use the new platform of computer delivery to individualize learning opportunities and interact one-on-one with students far more than is possible in the conventional classroom.

As we wrote in our book, it is true that online learning programs have worked best so far with the more motivated students although our theories lead us to predict that this will improve over time. As the platform improves, I imagine human-interaction tools for the teacher will improve as will the leveraging of the new platform to introduce games, simulations, project-based learning, and so forth in the right mix given the individual student’s needs.

Question from Laurie Zucker-Conde, Director of World Languages and ELL, Waltham Public Schools:

How would you envision using digital technology to help high school ELL students, many of whom are struggling to pass state tests in English? Do you think this technology could ever be used to let students take courses in other countries or in colleges?

Michael B. Horn:

This is a great question--and a crucial one. Using digital technologies can undoubtedly play a big role here. By having the opportunity to individualize learning opportunities, a program can offer ELL students appropriate content that they can understand to master concepts. It can also build in different pathways to help a student bolster his or her English skills, either in an English course itself or in the context of another subject. This is generally not possible in a traditional classroom. Apex Learning for example is starting to do some neat things in this area.

North Carolina has an online program called Learn and Earn that allows students to take college courses while in high school, and it would be great if we could leverage this to make learning a global affair. The possibilities are endless, but public policy will have to keep pace to realize this last opportunity in particular.

Question from Cheryl Jaffe - Radar Engineer, Math Teacher, Proud Parent:

When I read the phrases “customized learning approach” and “aligned with a student’s aptitudes”, I cannot help but wonder why, why, why do we continue to allow schools to legally discriminate on the basis of age? We can (and should) customize styles, but should we not also customize pace? It seems to me that the first - and easiest - step to customization and alignment is to make placement decisions based on readiness rather that birthdate. It looks as though you plan on talking to customization through technology, but I hope you will address this more fundamental question.

Clayton M. Christensen:

You’re right. In the current school system, there are negatives with both social promotion as well as holding a student back. In one case the student doesn’t learn the material; in the other there are social drawbacks. Online learning can help break this apart if policy cooperates and moves us to a mastery-based system rather than one based on seat time. Online learning can really be the answer to the Prisoners of Time report by allowing a student to learn at any pace. When thinking about individualizing learning, this is the first place online learning has made an impact even before it has really addressed the other areas of differences.

Question from Cynthia, Special Ed Teacher, Chicago:

Ok, you say “people learn differently from one another.” But you propose students learn differently from a computer program, not a person. First, the less human contact the more social difficulties. Second, I’ve seen these programs in use at an “alternative school.” The kids: a) dilly dally all day because they cannot focus on the computer any better than a person, b) answer questions just as they would on any multiple choice test (i.e., they jump to the test at the end without reading the material and just fill in the blanks at random) and c) these programs do nothing but further frustrate the student who cannot read.

Michael B. Horn:

For any learning to be effective, it is clear that it must motivate and engage a student. There are online programs out there that don’t do that at this point, and this obviously is not what we’re advocating. Some programs are quite robust, however, and, to this point, the best ones have had a teacher involved who is monitoring the students and engaging them one-on-one. That human contact is still important, and it’s why hybrid or blended learning--the use of online learning in a physical location with a physical teacher present who has a very different role from the traditional teacher and is roaming around the room actively working with the students--I suspect will be where this moves for many.

Question from Dee McGlothlin, Director of Professional Development and Technology:

I have become entrenched in your book and we are presenting it Wednesday morning to our district Administrators, I will be asking them to think in terms of their own buildings and what disrupting innovation may look like and how the professional development and technology department can help aid question, thanks for a great book that gets people thinking.

Clayton M. Christensen:

We are very humbled by this. Thank you. One of our central purposes in writing this book was to provide a common language to help people frame the problem and not talk past each other. It’s clear that we don’t have all the answers and that this is only the beginning of a conversation for all of us.

Question from Julie Mushing, Coordinator, Kent ISD:

What are your thoughts of the impact to disadvantage students, students of color, or students of poverty that may require additional help for basic skills, in the online education world? What about access to the technology?

Michael B. Horn:

I’m glad you asked. The potential of online learning to improve equity in the delivery of a high-quality learning opportunity to anyone anywhere regardless of circumstance is one of its most exciting applications. I’ve actually written a blog entry about this very topic that was based on a chat that NACOL facilitated. You can read the post here.

In terms of access to the technology--for many middle- and upper-class students, access to a netbook or laptop is or will be the norm. For lower-income students, helping them out through innovative policies and arrangements (for example, like what the Lila G. Frederick Pilot Middle School does) will be important.

Question from Chris Toy, Consultant, Former Middle School Principal, Freeport Maine:

I enjoyed reading your book! I’m seeing a shift from an emphasis on 1:1 access to laptops to mobile learning with with a variety of devices. Are laptops soon to be disrupted by handheld mobile devices? Since the rate of change is accelerating so quickly what are your thoughts about the rate and impact of disruptive technology on education?

Clayton M. Christensen:

Thanks so much. This is quite interesting. As we chronicled in the book, mainframes were disrupted by minicomputers which were in turn disrupted by personal computers. Laptops are currently being disrupted by netbooks, and mobile smartphones are right behind them. It’s hard to imagine these devices not having an impact on education. The Asprinaut Initiative is making innovative use of mobile devices on school buses, for example, and these devices will undoubtedly have a disruptive impact on education in developing countries, too.

Question from Erik Jones, Math Teacher, Wilson Academy (AISD):

Michael Horn – you visited my Reasoning Mind class recently. What did you think? Does the technology I use help in the disruption of traditional education?

Michael B. Horn:

Thanks so much for writing! It’s great to reconnect. For those who don’t know, Reasoning Mind is a non-profit that develops online math curricula and supports schools in implementing them. Erik’s class in Houston offered a neat window into what the classroom of the future might look like--from what the new role of the teacher might be to how this new medium can individualize learning and make it engaging for students while using rigorous curricula.

Question from Steven Hall, Asst. Principal, Courtland HS:

In your book, you predict that in 10 years 50% of students will be taught outside of schools. What impact do you think societies desire or “need” to provide a place where children are supervised during the day will have on the move to web based schooling?

Clayton M. Christensen:

Good question. We actually aren’t projecting that 50% of students will be taught outside of schools. We’re predicting that 50% of course-hours (seat-miles, to borrow an airline term) will be taken on-line. We anticipate that most of this on-line learning will occur within the schools. Teachers will be supervising, tutoring, helping and mentoring these on-line learners. Many of the activities in today’s schools that provide important lessons in socialization, learning how to work with others, behaving responsibly, and so on, will continue to be done. But of the instructional component of the work in our schools, the trajectory suggests that 50% will come from on-line sources, rather than a teacher in front of the classroom, in 2019.

Question from Ryan Reyna, Policy Analyst, National Governors Association:

What are the policy barriers that may derail this movement toward virtual learning? How can governors, and other policy makers, remove these barriers and support the growth of virtual learning?

Michael B. Horn:

Thanks, Ryan. Policy at the state level plays a vital role. States should set up supplemental online state schools as autonomous entities similar to Florida Virtual School. Nowadays they don’t need to build their own content and can take in a wide range of appropriate options for example. Setting up a self-sustaining funding model for these entities is similarly important, as is moving beyond metrics like seat time and student-teacher ratios and moving instead toward a model that rewards mastery. Putting in place policies that allow teacher reciprocity across states and so forth will also be important so online learning can help with teacher shortages and the like and give every student a high-quality online learning opportunity.

Question from Kenneth Broussard, Ed. Administrator, New Mexico Public Education Department:

Given the economic crisis and the struggle of the poor to survive, will the digital divide also beome an educational divide where only those who can afford the equipment and connectivity participate? Do you see this disruptive innovation augmenting, supplementing, and/or replacing public schools?

Clayton M. Christensen:

Great question, Kenneth. Historically the impact of disruption has been to transform things that were so complicated and expensive that on people with a lot of money and time could access them, into things that are so affordable and simple to use that a much larger population of less-well-endowed people can enjoy the products or services. There are a lot of benfits of public education that are available primarily to those in well-endowed homes and school districts. Disruption will “democratize” these benefits for many more students. A common misconception of on-line learning is that it happens out of schools. Some will, of course. But we believe that most on-line learning will happen within our schools, transforming teachers’ roles from crowd control and monolithic lecturing, into tutors that work with individual students. One thing I worry a lot about is that the $130 billion or so that is targeted in the Obama stimulus package for schools, will be used to fund a continuation of the status quo. This is borrowed money. Charging education isn’t the same thing as changing it. Budgetary crises sometimes compel us to adopt disruption.

Question from Adam Urbanski, Executive Director of the AFT Innovation Fund:

What are the implications of all this for responsible and responsive teacher unions?

Michael B. Horn:

Thanks, Adam, for your question and your thoughtful leadership here and elsewhere. This movement is nothing buy great news for teachers. It will change their role and require some shifts in policy as a result, but it should be a much more rewarding role as teachers will have the opportunity to become mentors, coaches, and problem solvers for individual students rather than the entertainers and crowd-control specialists they’ve had to be.

One thing unions will have to think about is how professional development can change in this world. Online learning, for example, can offer teachers just-in-time, targeted training that will be much more effective than many of the professional development sessions out there currently. How to give proper credit for these sessions and offer proper incentives for this will be important.

Question from Charles Blaschke, President, Education TURNKEY Systems:

Please explain how your concept differs from Joseph Schumpeter’s about “swarms of innovation” that lead to “creative destruction?”

Clayton M. Christensen:

Good question! The great economists such as Marshall and Keynes gave us models of causality in the phenomena they studied. Schumpeter’s contribution was different. He observed the phenomenon of creative destruction -- that progress came from entrant swarms, often to the destruction of the old leaders. But he never offered a causal explanation. People who know Schumpeter’s work and mine have suggested that, inadvertently, my discovery of the theory of disruption actually provides the causal explanation for the phenomenon, or typical result, that Schumpeter chronicled. I never set out to augment Schumpeter’s work in this way, but I think it turned out to provide this causal dimension of his theory, which previously was lacking.

Question from Debra Wachspress, Director of Advocacy, NJ Charter Public Schools Association:

How best would on-line education tools be supplemented by live instruction and peer interaction for the highly gifted student?

Michael B. Horn:

That’s a good question. For most students, learning will still happen in a school or some physical building clearly. After all, home schooling will only be an acceptable solution for a limited number of families, so thinking through what the school of the future will look like is still crucial. Mixing in live teachers that aren’t necessarily “instructing” but instead facilitating learning opportunities will likely be a big part. For some students in some subjects, peer interaction will also be vital -- the online learning platform can in many cases facilitate this, but large degrees of offline learning and peer-to-peer interaction are likely to be big as well. Many of the hybrid models that are emerging are coming up with some innovative ways of doing this.

Also, one common misconception about online learning is that it all happens online. Especially in the early years, much of it still happens with offline activities. Many interactions and individualization occurs through the online medium as well as many of the activities, but certainly not all. Ultimately it should depend upon the individual students needs. Question from Tim Youngblood, CTO, Skoodat:

What good is all the learning technology in the world if it doesn’t connect to a *data system* that is affordable, ubiquitous, transparent yet secure?

Clayton M. Christensen:

When technological platforms emerge that make it simple and affordable for a larger population of people to design and build products or provide services that previously had required a lot of capital and expertise, the fundamental business model changes. It transforms from a value-adding process business, into a network business. For example, technology has made it simple for you and me to create videos -- quite professional ones, often. Coupled with You-Tube, these technologies are transforming the video content creation business into a network business, where users create their own content. MP3 technology, coupled with Pandora and iTunes, are transforming the music creation and distribution business into a network business model as well. Anybody with a computer and a basement can compose and record music that sounds as good as what professionals could do a generation ago. Platforms are now emerging that in a similar way, will transform the creation of instructional materials into a network business. it will start with simple tutorial tools created by students to help fellow students; by teachers to help fellow teachers and their students; and by parents to help their children. The platforms are just now emerging. But the infrastructure for acocmplishing this is largely in place.

Question from Eugenio Severin, Education Specialist, IDB:

I undestand, on your book, that you propose to work with “non-consumers” first, like a tactical decision. But, in optimal conditions, do you think that is possible and desirable, in a national or sub-national level, to develop a wide disruptive program for change all educational system in short terms?

Michael B. Horn:

That’s right. Disruptive innovations first plant themselves in nonconsuming contexts--where the alternative before was nothing at all. This is because in the early years of any disruptive innovation, the innovation is considered not good enough by the mainstream users according to the old measures of performance. The disruptive innovation, however, brings new kinds of performance -- like affordability, accessibility, the ability to customize, and so forth. And it also improves along historical measures of importance and begins to be able to handle the mainstream users’ more complicated problems one by one.

In the case of online learning, for example, the interfaces between teacher and student are still certainly clunky in many ways, but, just like with all disruptive innovations, we’d expect this to improve. Ultimately, we’d expect to be able to offer this for everyone as a result where it made sense based on the individual. Of course, it’s possible not every program will look the same--they will have different mixtures of online and offline activities, different levels of group-work and human interaction, different levels of gaming and so forth.

Question from Kevin Conner, Curriculum and Instructional technology Coordinator, Allegheny IU:

While I agree wholeheartedly that individualized instruction should occur, I wonder how you propose to give teachers the skill set they need to accomplish this, and how do you convince teacher preparation programs to completely retool to meet this need?

Clayton M. Christensen:

Great point. I don’t think we were pointed enough in our book on this question. If history is any guide, the leading schools of education will resist the need to change the way they prepare tomorrow’s teachers. We think it will be institutions such as Teach for America that lead the way. Rather than expect the Ed Schools to change, creating disruptive institutions and mechanisms for teacher training offers a much higher probability of success. Often, ongoing professional development courses are a much more receptive venue for these types of changes than are the mainstream institutions of higher ed.

Question from Richard Wojewodzki,

Do you think Web 2.0 apps are going to become the standard both for addressing individualization in learning as well as creating authentic situations in which students with varied learning styles and motivations can collaborate on substantive projects with one another?

Michael B. Horn:

In our book we project that Web 2.0 apps will play a vital role in the actual customization of learning opportunities--and a result should be exactly what you suggest in the second half of your question. We believe that facilitated user networks will begin to arise that allow teachers, parents, and students to create applications and learning experiences to help other students (and teachers and parents!) understand concepts in a way that makes sense for them. We know that we often learn best when we have to actually teach something; these user networks will provide that opportunity. We suspect that many of these applications that take off will do so first in tutoring applications. Tutoring is a huge area of nonconsumption and one where much innovation can take place.

Question from Cynthia, Special Ed Teacher, Chicago:

Ok, you say “people learn differently from one another.” But you propose students learn differently from a computer program, not a person. First, the less human contact the more social difficulties. Second, I’ve seen these programs in use at an “alternative school.” The kids: a) dilly dally all day because they cannot focus on the computer any better than a person, b) answer questions just as they would on any multiple choice test (i.e., they jump to the test at the end without reading the material and just fill in the blanks at random) and c) these programs do nothing but further frustrate the student who cannot read.

Clayton M. Christensen:

Cynthia, almost always disruptive technologies succeed when they are deployed against the simplest problems first. Special needs education is at the complex end of the spectrum, and we’d not recommend that this is where computer-based, student-centric tools first be used. Furthermore, we don’t see in any way that teachers will be replaced. Rather, the nature of their job changes, from working individually with students as they learn. What will disappear is requiring teachers to lecture monolithically while controlling the behavior of large classes. it takes teaching back, in many ways, to what it was like in 1-room school houses, where all learning was individualized. And don’t extrapolate too far from your experience with that alternative school. In Milwaukee, for example, they’ve created a remarkable school where GED students, those requiring credit recovery, and so on, consume most learning from 0n-line sources. For them, it really has become a model that they’re trying to roll out across the district.

Question from Melvin Rountree, Teacher, GST-BOCES:

Are we not hindering our children to expect that employers will customize a job to them, and that they (the child) will be catered to in the real world? How do teachers plan for this if this is where they want us to go? I see this as bandwagon to jump onto.

Michael B. Horn:

It’s a great point. Project-based learning--in which students are offered authentic opportunities to tackle complicated problems and questions in the real world and therefore learn through the inquiry that they do and real material that they produce--is an important component of student-centric learning. Online learning platforms can certainly incorporate this, but even if they don’t, the schools of the future should consider ways to augment what they do with this component. There are many models for this from High-Tech High to the Met schools. Generation Schools has figured out how to build these authentic learning experiences in its school year and to reconfigure the school experience to offer more time for students for less money.

Question from Dave Boliek, Professional Development:

The issue of discipline.. as in discipline to do the work.. arises when we talk about students engaging in online learning. Without teachers and their skills to lead learning, does a teenager’s lack of discipline not argue against relying on online courses?

Clayton M. Christensen:

It depends upon your sense of the root cause of discipline problems, Dave. Such problems rarely occur when students are feeling like they’re being successful at engaging tasks. If they’re being forced to learn in ways that don’t make sense to them, they get bored and frustrated, and they misbehave. if they are only able to feel successful once a week when they get a good grade, then a fundamental motivator to stay with a task simply isn’t present -- so they misbehave. We see student-centric, software-based learning as a fundamental mechanism for solving these behavioral problems. Kids can learn in ways that are natural to them, and they can experience success regularly. Plus, freed from the requirement to lecture and control the large batches of kids, teachers will be able to give much more individual attention to students -- which addresses individual behavior problems much more effectively than teachers can do at present, when forced into the batch mode of instruction and crowd control.

Question from Daniel Christian, Multimedia Specialist, Calvin College:

Do you see teams of specialists building the technology-enabled pieces for such customized learning? Or do you see individual instructors and professors learning how to do this via professional development?

Michael B. Horn:

This is a good question. One of the hallmarks of disruption is that it takes an activity that at one time could only be done by the top experts in a field and, in essence, begins to make that expertise a commodity. Initially teams of specialists will likely build these technology-enabled pieces of learning. But in many cases, it will be tough and expensive to truly customize for all the needs out there. Ultimately we suspect that user networks will empower not only individual instructors and professors to create customized pieces of learning to help students in particular circumstances (hence why this will likely start in tutoring applications), but also parents and students themselves. Specialists will likely come along then and snap these modules together into more comprehensive courses, or these modules will plug into a more complicated backbone that helps define scope and sequence, similar to how Linux works in many ways.

Question from Jack Blodgett, Director of School Planning/Development, Youth Learning Institute, Clemson University:

When you write that “a student-centric curriculum achieved through the implementation of computers can transcend the school boundary,” do you assume that individual learning needs are more important than the group interests that, for many thoughtful people, give the idea of “school” and “schooling” its meaning? Does this statement also assume the primary purpose of education is to get information and the skills of processing it into the minds of every individual child in the most efficient and effective way possible? Conceding the fact that public schools are currently failing to engage huge numbers of kids in learning, bound by their architecture and limited in so many other well-documented respects, I hope you could respond to Neil Postman’s assertion in The End of Education that “the idea of a school is that individuals must learn in a setting in which individual needs are subordinated to group interests.”

Clayton M. Christensen:

Jack, we don’t see the dimension of education that comprises “group interests” as being compromised at all. Today when a teacher lectures to a large batch of students in a monolithic mode, they aren’t interacting with each other and developing skills for working together, valuing each other and behaving responsibly. We see on-line, student-centric learning as substituting (disrupting) the monolithic batch lecture. Teachers will become tutors, rather than crowd controllers. the activities in our schools wherein students cultivate these other critical attitudes and skills need not, and should not, disappear.

Question from Emily Wolcott, Student, Towson University:

I am currently studying to be a teacher and wonder how I will be able to manage a different approach with each student in my class?

Clayton M. Christensen:

Emily, this is precisely the rub. It is very, very difficult, if not impossible. Not because you don’t want to. But each of us has our own brain which itself has a natural learning style and type of intelligence. So we as teachers have a powerful proclivity -- even a limitation -- to teach to our own type of intelligence. And even if we were very good and very skilled at teaching to different styles of learners, we couldn’t do it simultaneously. While we were customizing for one group of students, the others wouldn’t be learning efficiently. It is precisely this limitation on our abilities as teachers that causes us to assert that software is much more flexible as a means of teaching, to be customized for different types of learners.

Question from Kenneth Miller, electronic publisher, consultant:

It’s said that good teaching involves maintaining a dialogue among students and between the teacher and the student, so that an inquiry takes place for every student. This is necessary to develop a deeper conceptual understanding of the material. Have you seen online learning models that maintain this dialogue for each student?

Michael B. Horn:

Online learning really brings this part of learning alive as it allows a teacher to have much more one-on-one interaction with every student and to allow a student to be a much more vibrant participant in his or her own learning experience. This is how many of the more successful online learning opportunities work today--from the Florida Virtual School to K12, Inc. There’s a study out there that I believe appeared in Threshold magazine’s partnership issue with NACOL that actually quantifies how students are much more involved in their learning when it is online than when it is in a conventional classroom. The number of interactions from a student in a 45-minute period online were exponentially higher than how much a student was actively interacting and in a dialogue in the conventional environment.

Question from Stacey Portmore-Davies:

I understand that students learn differently than each other, but if we have on line coursed, how wil they learn FROM each other? I know that there would be class blogs, where sharing would occur, but that does not help with social interaction, learning to take turns, reading facial expressions, working cooperatively, etc - all necessary real world work force skills.

Clayton M. Christensen:

Great question, Stacey. To a certain extent, today’s learning software doesn’t facilitate this learning from each other. Instead, it was written to mimic and fit within the textbook business model. And it is not student-centric. But the “phase II” that we envision is one that facilitates students teaching and learning from each other. Platforms are emerging that make it simple for students to create tools to help each other. My son,for example, as a genius in math, simply can’t spell. I think it is because spelling is taught by a teacher whose style of learning or intelligence is fundamentally different than my son’s. But these platforms will enable my son to develop tutorials or tools for teaching other match whizzes how to spell, using methods and rules that make sense to his brain. This is when the development of curricular materials moves into a network business model, as we describe in our book.

Question from Doug Stein, Consultant, MemeSpark LLC:

In K-12, the biggest barriers to disruption come from Civil War era procurement processes (backed by law) that are designed to prevent innovation (and profit for companies!). Should companies trying to provide disruptive innovation ignore the adoption states and largest school districts until they get desperate (perhaps by seeing their less-constrained brethren excel while they languish)?

How does disruption proceed when the bulk of funding is constrained by laws that are tilted towards sustaining innovation?

Michael B. Horn:

This is a great question. In Chapter 5 of our book we hit upon this very point and how this adoption process handicaps disruption--and, more importantly, true student-centric learning. Going into the head of the beast has been the traditional route many education reformers have taken in their efforts, and yet, that’s not how most disruptions take root. Disruptions first take root by avoiding these areas that are likely to reject them--by going under and around the system rather than taking dead aim. This offers a lesson here, too. Ultimately, as a new system is created in areas of nonconsumption and people gradually move to this new system, the regulation caves as well and conforms to the new reality. One of the reasons why we think a user network holds such promise is that it really does an end around around all of the district adoption processes and goes direct to the users themselves--and involves teachers and students who are struggling with real problems in the process. It’s yet another reason why programs after school--tutoring and so forth--is such a promising avenue for much of the innovation.

Question from Carlo Franzblau, Inventor, Tune into Reading:

What advice do you have for educators that want to try an innovative (potentially disruptively so) reading intervention, but they don’t have funding readily available?

Michael B. Horn:

Thanks for your question, Carlo. Tune into Reading itself of course is a good example of an inexpensive reading program that is fun and engaging for students--seeing it in a classroom seems to suggest they don’t want to stop using it!--and rigorous academic studies are showing good results. Ultimately we suspect that user networks will allow for the publishing of online interventions that help teachers solve this problem in low-cost ways, too. FreeReading is an interesting first resource here, and I imagine more robust platforms will arise over time.

Question from Cheryl Rollins Parent:

As high school education becomes more customized and time spent learning becomes more flexible, what processes will be in place at the school or community level to fill non-class room time with meaningful learning experiences?

Michael B. Horn:

This is a crucial question for “schools” to figure out. For starters, people of course hire schools to do many jobs--not just the instructional, academic one. Ultimately I suspect that schools will evolve into much more of a community-center model that accommodates different students’ distinct needs--not only in learning but in life. Figuring out how to structure a more open school and to use it to offer enriching activities as a community center might will be important. Not every child may take advantage of every offering, but having constructive opportunities there will be important. Take a look at Mavericks in Education as well. They are targeting drop-out students first and have some neat extracurricular activities built in as a reward for students.

Question from Sean Gaillard, Assistant Principal:

What are current ways educational leaders are preparing for and applying the tenets of Disruptive Innovation?

Clayton M. Christensen:

Great question, Sean. The normal mode thru which disruption transforms an industry is the sum of individual decisions made by a diffused population of users, who always are searching for solutions that are more effective, affordable and convenient. They typically happen without a grand plan or design. Toyota didn’t imagine in 1965 that it would be selling Lexuses 40 years later. They started with a simple product, sold to people who couldn’t afford big GM & Ford cars. Then person by person, and model by model, Toyota evolved towards what it is today. However, we are seeing more an more that when they understand the model of disruption, executives can shortcut the gradual evolution that is typical, and make it happen fast. For example, the founder of ING Direct -- an online-only bank -- has created the 15th largest bank in North America in less than a decade because he consciously followed the model of disruption. There are a number of leaders of public education who, fully understanding the model, are short-cutting the long, evolutionary “default” mode of disruption, and are making it happen quite quickly. Good systems to study are what Bill Andrekopoulos is doing in Milwaukee; what the Alpine School District in Utah has done with its on-line middle- and elementary school; and what the Florida Virtual High School has done.

Question from Cathy Smith Regional Consutlant Career Dev, ISD:

In what ways are portfolios being used as part of the customized learning “student owned” learning process? Are digital portfolios a future part of the student’s owning their own learning process?

Michael B. Horn:

Great observation. I think the opportunity of online-learning platforms being able to capture every student interaction and instance of their work offers an exciting glimpse of how we might use the medium to move toward the idea you pose. Capturing this in a way that is interoperable and allows a student’s work to “move” with the student as they progress in age or move geographies and districts will be important. Data infrastructures that sit behind much of this will therefore be important--to capture what the student has done but also understand what needs they have and how they best learn.

Also, as High-Tech High has shown, giving students the opportunity to publish authentic work shows them that what they are doing is valued and meaningful and creates feelings of success and pride--two attributes not to be underestimated in thinking about motivation to improve learning.

Michelle Davis (Moderator):

Thanks for all the great questions and many thanks to Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn for the thoughtful responses. Unfortunately we have more questions than time, so we’ll have to leave the discussion there. A transcript of this chat will be available on Education Week’s Web site shortly: We’d like to thank the sponsor of this chat

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