Is online learning disrupting education?

Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, and Michael B. Horn lit off a firestorm in the education community upon its release in 2008. The premise – that online learning is a disruptive force with the potential to transform education – had everyone from Business Week to District Administration debating whether or not online learning is an answer to the problems in public education. At the Keeping Pace panel discussion at the 2010 Virtual School Symposium, an audience member asked the following:  “Now that online learning is starting to happen at some scale – is it truly disruptive? Is it making changes? Is it improving quality?” To hear the whole discussion and see the full list of panelists, please visit; the discussion happens from 47:30 – 53:50.

The answers from our panelists varied, and were somewhat surprising. Liz Pape from the VHS Global Consortium was the first to jump in and say that it is disruptive in a way we didn’t anticipate – that it’s not online learning that will disrupt the education system to the core, but rather blended learning that will become prevalent in all K-12 classrooms and change the way students learn. Allison Powell from iNACOL echoed this, noting that traditional districts are testing the waters of online learning first by building blended options to deal with financial challenges and missed school days, for example.

Another panelist disagreed, noting that virtual charters will never put traditional school districts out of business. Online learning is, however, driving change. Panelists argued it is bringing disruption by increasing transparency to the issues around school reform, as online programs must reach high bars of accountability and expectations in terms of quality content, instruction, and management.

We ran out of time in this interesting discussion, and believe there is much more to be said. What do you think? Is online learning proving to be the disruptive force Christensen and team said it would be?