Christensen Institute’s new report asks the key question in blended learning

The Clayton Christensen Institute’s new report—Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive? —touches on the issue that we believe is the most important topic in online and blended learning today: whether blended learning, as conceived and implemented in many schools, will be transformative. The Christensen Institute (formerly the Innosight Institute), as it so often does, provides a valuable theoretical grounding to this question. [Some] industries experience a hybrid stage when they are in the middle of a disruptive transformation. A hybrid is a combination of the new, disruptive technology with the old technology and represents a sustaining innovation relative to the old technology…The models of blended learning that follow the hybrid pattern are on a sustaining trajectory relative to the traditional classroom. They are poised to build upon and offer sustaining enhancements to the factory-based classroom system, but not disrupt it. (emphasis added)

 The report goes on to suggest ways in which education leaders can “foster disruptive innovation,” starting with

  1. “Create a team within the school that is autonomous from all aspects of the traditional classroom.”
  2. “Focus disruptive blended-learning models initially on areas of nonconsumption.”

This is where the report is most notable, and in our view most valuable, because it draws a bright line between technology-rich classrooms and blended learning.

We see many educators who believe that the first step towards a blended classroom, or blended school, is providing tablets to students, or smartboards to teachers, or digital textbooks to all. Those things, in fact, are not steps towards disruptive innovation. That is the most valuable element of the Christensen Institute's new report, and if it that idea becomes as widely known as the Institute's other theories, this new report may be the most valuable one yet.

When we tell educators that we don’t believe certain developments are considered “blended learning,” the response is often along the lines of “but those items (tablets, smartboards, etc.) are helpful!” Here again, the Institute provides valuable commentary:

A common misreading of the theory of disruptive innovation is that disruptive innovations are good and sustaining innovations are bad. This is false. Sustaining innovations are vital to a healthy and robust sector, as organizations strive to make better products or deliver better services to their best customers. (emphasis added)

The theory doesn’t suggest that these sustaining innovations are worthless, or bad. The key, however, is that the “best customers” benefit. These changes will largely serve students who are already doing fairly well. This is a good thing, but only to the extent that it does not keep the school from also creating truly disruptive, blended schools or classrooms as well, to serve the students who are most in need.

The report ends on a positive note:

In the long term, the disruptive models of blended learning are on a path to becoming good enough to entice mainstream students from the existing system into the disruptive one in secondary schools. They introduce new benefits—or value propositions—that focus on providing individualization; universal access and equity; and productivity. Over time, as the disruptive models of blended learning improve, these new value propositions will be powerful enough to prevail over those of the traditional classroom.   

The counterpoint is, of course, the famous quote from John Maynard Keynes:

“But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”

We are certainly seeing some educators and schools choosing blended learning paths and models that are disruptive, that are producing major changes in schools, and that are improving student outcomes now. The key is making sure that enough schools are taking this path, and doing so in the near-term, and not simply choosing the sustaining innovations in the form of technology-enhanced classrooms.