A response to whether online learning is disrupting education

We are pleased to welcome our first guest blogger, Andy Frost from PLATO Learning. Is online learning disrupting education? Maybe, but that depends on how you define and measure online learning. And we won’t know for sure for another eight years.

Amy Murin recently asked the question on this blog “Is online learning disrupting education?”  It’s a great question, and the panel Amy referenced was a great start to the discussion.  As the skeptical (though not totally dissenting) voice on the panel, I offered to write a guest post laying out what I see as some key issues to examine in thinking about the question.  This, then, is that post.

“By 2019, about 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online.”  Clayton Christensen’s brilliant book, Disrupting Class, has nine chapters, 256 pages, thousands of sentences, and tens of thousands of words, yet that one fourteen-word predictive sentence is the one that seemingly everyone wants to talk about.  It’s a prediction that evokes thoughtful, varied, and often passionate reactions, especially from those of us that work in education and education technology.  I’ve personally been involved in many a heated water cooler debate over whether that prediction will prove to be accurate.  There are arguments both for and against the prediction.  I’ll lay out one of each later in this post.

It’s also a very simple and concrete statement on which the validity of the book (fairly or not) can be measured.  It seems that in order to conclusively answer the question “is online learning disruptive?” (posed at a panel at VSS and blogged here) we have to wait until 2019. In the meantime, though, we need to answer some important questions about how we define and measure online and blended learning.  I’ll lay out the two definition and measurement challenges that I think are most crucial.

Disruptive deployment is real

It’s almost impossible to dispute that what Christensen and his co-authors call “disruptive deployment” is very real and has been underway for some time now.  In the book, the authors talk about two key areas in which online learning follows the classic disruptive model by “competing with non-consumption:”  1) Credit Recovery and Dropout Prevention and 2) Advanced and non-core courses.  In both cases, online learning has been relatively easy for schools and districts to adopt because the most likely alternative is nothing. To validate that this is the case, I don’t have to look any further than PLATO Learning, where I work.  PLATO has been helping schools and districts build technology-based credit recovery and remediation programs for decades.  For the past 10 years, those programs have been delivered over the Internet.  Within the last year, we’ve built and released new Advanced Placement courses and partnered to provide global language courses.  There’s a reason that these recent curriculum developments match the book’s pattern of disruptive deployment and it’s not because PLATO management read the book (although they did).  The reason is that those areas (credit recovery, advanced placement, and global languages) are the areas where schools and districts are taking advantage of online learning the most.  Disruptive deployment of online learning is real and it’s happening now.

Schools are not Best Buy (but how different are they?)

In example after example, Christensen and his co-authors compare the adoption of educational technology (and specifically online learning) to various business examples.  In a quick scan of chapter four, I found references to digital photography (Kodak, Polaroid, Fuji, Agfa), disk drives, telecom (VoIP), women’s sportswear, iPod/iTunes (of course), and the auto industry (the Detroit Big Three vs. Toyota). The biggest argument against these comparisons, of course, is that there are fundamental differences between K-12 public education and the corporate marketplace. Decisions in education are made by a vast array of players including (but not limited to) principals, superintendents, school boards, state and federal legislators, and state departments of education. Funding comes from taxpayers who are passionately interested in the education of their children and the use of their tax dollars.  And decisions are influenced, if not restricted, at every turn by legislation, regulation, and union contracts. All of those factors combine to make decisions about education seem fundamentally different from walking into a Best Buy to pick up the latest iPod.

Here, then, are key arguments for and against online learning as a disruptive agent in education. Online learning is growing FAST and it is following the disruptive deployment path outlined in Disrupting Class. But can that disruptive force really overcome the structural barriers that have frustrated education reformers for years?  We only have to wait eight more years to find out for sure.  Between now and then, though, we have some important questions to answer if we want to know for sure. We’ll look at those questions in tomorrow’s blog post.