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Disruption and Transformation in K12 Education

Cliff Maxwell, 4/28/2016


The most frequently read blog the Christensen Institute has ever published is titled “Will computers replace teachers?” Sexy headline aside, the question gets at the fear individuals in the education space have about the disruption that is occurring.

In 2008 Clay Christensen and Michael Horn made the prediction that half of all high school courses would be online in some form or fashion - a prediction that begs the very question - “Will computers replace teachers?”. If disruption is afoot, does that spell the end of schools and teachers as we know it, just as countless other incumbents have fallen by the wayside? The answer is no. Schools may be transformed over time, but not disrupted entirely.

Disruption is possible where footholds of nonconsumption are present. K-12 schools, interestingly, have a universal monopoly on consumption. The reason this exists is because parents have an important job to be done that doesn’t stand to change over time - give me a safe place to send my kids during the day, and teach them something while they’re there. Nonconsumption therefore isn’t present at the school level - it occurs a few layers deeper. Some students don’t have access to courses because their school can’t offer them. Some students have dropped out. Others are on the verge of dropping out and are in remedial/alternative programs outside the mainstream. Some students have access to tutors, parents, or others who can help them succeed. Many do not. Some students have wifi. Many don’t. These challenges present ample opportunity for disruptive entrants to emerge, but aren’t found at the “school level”.

Online learning is continually serving these types of nonconsumers, and is improving to the point that it is now occurring in more and more mainstream classrooms as the value proposition improves. But the fears of large scale school upheaval, i.e. disruption of industry proportions where schools and teachers are no longer, can’t happen in the face of universal consumption.

What does stand to happen in K-12 education is a transformation, where the schools of tomorrow look radically different from schools of today as a result of disruptive changes in subsystems beneath them, i.e. classes, after-school services, etc. Schools may become community hubs where students come to collaborate, work online, get mentoring, tutoring, and individualized help - a stark contrast from the whole group instructional model of today where whiteboards and desks reign supreme.

Are there other public goods or industries, like K-12 education, in which universal consumption is present and where a transformation occurred as a result of sub-system disruption?