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Is K–12 Blended Learning Disruptive?


Blended learning—formal education programs that combine online learning and brick-and-mortar schools—is emerging rapidly in K–12 schools across the country, with the potential to reshape America’s factory-model education system into one that can personalize for different student needs.

As blended learning continues to grow, what has become apparent is that there are several different types, or models, of blended learning emerging as well. Fundamentally, there appear to be four overarching models of blended learning emerging, with a variety of sub-models:

The Rotation Model

The Rotation model is one in which within a given course or subject (e.g., math), students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion between learning modalities, at least one of which is online learning. Other modalities might include small-group or full-class instruction, group projects, individual tutoring and pencil-and-paper assignments. The Rotation model has four sub-models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom and Individual Rotation.

  • The Station Rotation model—or what some refer to as the Classroom Rotation or In-Class Rotation model—is one in which students rotate within a contained classroom.
  • The Lab Rotation model is one in which the rotation occurs between a classroom and a learning lab for online learning.
  • The Flipped Classroom model is one in which the rotation occurs between the school for face-to-face teacher-guided practice (or projects) and the home or other off-site location for online content and instruction.
  • The Individual Rotation model differs from the other Rotation models because each student in essence has an individualized playlist and does not necessarily rotate to each available station or modality.

The Flex Model

The Flex model is one in which online learning is the backbone of student learning, even if it directs students to offline activities at times. Students move on an individually customized, fluid schedule among learning modalities, and the teacher of record is on-site.

The A la Carte Model

The A la Carte model is one in which students take one or more courses entirely online with an online teacher of record and at the same time continue to have brick-and-mortar educational experiences. Students may take the online courses either on the brick-and-mortar campus or off-site.

The Enriched Virtual Model

The Enriched Virtual model is a whole-school experience in which within each course (e.g., math), students divide their time between attending a brick-and-mortar campus and learning remotely using online delivery of content and instruction.

Analyzing the emergence of these models reveals that some are classic sustaining innovations to America’s traditional classrooms, whereas others are disruptive innovations that do away with the notion of a classroom entirely and will likely have more transformational potential in the long run. Understanding the difference is important to helping school leaders plan for the classrooms of today and the schools of tomorrow.

Introduction to sustaining and disruptive innovation

There are two basic types of innovation, sustaining and disruptive, that follow different trajectories and lead to different results. Sustaining innovations help leading, or incumbent, organizations make better products or services that can often be sold for better profits to their best customers. They serve existing customers according to the original definition of performance—that is, according to the way the market historically has defined what’s good. Since the publication of Clayton Christensen’s Disrupting Class, a common misreading of the theory of disruptive innovation has been 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. Airplanes that fly farther, computers that process faster, cellular phone batteries that last longer and televisions with clearer images are all examples of sustaining innovations.

Public agencies consistently pursue sustaining innovations as well. They are motivated by political and social priorities instead of by profit, but they engage in the upward march nonetheless. Sustaining innovations have left a profound mark on postsecondary institutions, which compete to deliver better sports teams, publish more acclaimed research and recruit the most elite students. K12 public schools have likewise pursued sustaining innovations aggressively. Today public schools deliver countless programs and services that rarely existed before the mid-20th century, including physical education, health education, summer school, school lunch programs, counselors and medical and dental care.

Whereas sustaining innovations help established organizations improve their ability to serve mainstream customers, another type of innovation—disruptive innovation—presents an even more powerful force in transforming industries. Disruptive innovations, in contrast with sustaining, do not try to bring better products to existing customers in established markets. Instead, they offer a new definition of what’s good; typically they are simpler, more convenient, and less expensive products that appeal to new or less-demanding customers. This allows them to take root in simple, undemanding applications within a new market or arena of competition. Little by little, disruptions improve predictably. At some point, disruptive innovations become good enough to handle more-complicated problems—and then they gradually take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

The personal computer is an example of the power of disruptive innovation. Prior to the introduction of the personal computer, the least expensive computer was the minicomputer. It cost well over $200,000, was the size of a filing cabinet and essentially required an engineering degree to operate. The personal computer entered the scene in the 1970s and 1980s, but mainstream customers, as well as minicomputer companies, paid little attention to it because its processing power was so inferior to that of minicomputers. Apple, one of the pioneers in personal computing, originally sold its early computers as a toy to children. Children had been nonconsumers of computers before, so they did not care that the product was not as good as minicomputers.

But little by little the disruption improved. Apple, Dell and other personal computer makers introduced what for them were sustaining innovations, and eventually the personal computer became capable of doing work that had previously required minicomputers. This made computing widespread and cheaper. It left almost everyone—except minicomputer companies—better off.

To return to the topic of K12 blended learning, is the appearance of blended learning across the K12 landscape indicative of a sustaining or a disruptive innovation? If it’s sustaining, then blended learning will bring helpful improvements and efficiencies to traditional classrooms but not transform them. But in contrast, if it’s disruptive, then blended learning is on a trajectory to replace traditional classrooms with an entirely new learning model in the future. The answer to this question is important, and it emerges from understanding one more piece to the theory.

The theory of hybrids

Often industries experience a hybrid stage as they are in the middle of a disruptive transformation. A hybrid is a combination of the new, disruptive technology with the old technology, and it represents a sustaining innovation relative to the old technology. Whenever a disruptive innovation emerges, the leading firms in the field often do attempt to adopt it, but they do so as a sustaining innovation, generally by creating a hybrid solution.

The history of excavators provides an illuminating example from a very different industry. Prior to World War II, huge excavators that dug holes and trenches relied on a system of pulleys, cables and drums to manipulate their big buckets. But in 1947, a new mechanism emerged for extending and lifting the bucket: hydraulically actuated systems. The first hydraulic excavators had limited power and strength, they could only move a limited amount of earth with each scoop and they had minimal reach. Because their capacity was so small and their reach so short, hydraulic excavators were of no use for general excavation and mining. As a result, the entrant firms had to find new applications for their products. To their delight, they found that small residential contractors actually preferred the new machines. The smaller machines allowed them to dig narrow ditches for water and sewer lines for houses under construction. Cable-actuated excavators were much too large and imprecise for the job, so before the arrival of hydraulic excavators, residential contractors had to dig trenches by hand. The hydraulic excavators offered a welcomed solution to nonconsumers.

Meanwhile, Bucyrus Erie, the leading cable shovel maker, was aware of the emergence of the hydraulic excavating technology, but he faced a predicament. Its most important mainstream customers, the general excavators and miners, had no use for a weak, low-capacity, short-reach hydraulic excavator. Bucyrus’s response was to try to offer the best of both worlds: the power, capacity and reach of a cable-actuated system blended with the precision and maneuverability of a hydraulic excavator. In 1951, it introduced the “Hydrahoe.” This new machine featured hydraulic cylinders to curl and draw the shovel and at the same time, a cable mechanism to lift the shovel. The Hydrahoe was a hybrid of the two technologies.

Other excavator companies also experimented with using hydraulics to serve their existing customers. Over the long term, however, the new entrants who developed pure hydraulic excavators for residential contractors improved upon their technology enough that the hydraulic excavators were able to address the needs of mainstream excavation contractors. The established firms and hybrid machines lost the contest. Today, hydraulic systems have replaced cable-actuated excavators entirely.

Bucyrus had two options when it wanted to participate in the hydraulics opportunity. The sustaining option was to invent a hybrid product that would allow it to market hydraulics to its existing customers while continuing to deliver the performance that cable-actuated machines offered. The disruptive option was to find a new market that would value the pure-play hydraulic technology for what it was—smaller, simpler, and more maneuverable. Bucyrus chose the sustaining, hybrid strategy. As a result, it missed the larger disruption that eventually occurred in the industry as pure hydraulic technology became good enough to meet the needs of mainstream general excavators and miners.

The automobile industry is likewise on its own hybrid journey at the moment: it has developed several hybrid cars along its way to transitioning from gasoline-fueled engines to engines with alternative power sources. The leading companies want the virtues of both, so they have developed a sustaining innovation: hybrid cars that use both gasoline and electricity. Other industries, including steamships, photography, retail and banking, have experienced a hybrid stage on their way to realizing the pure disruption.

We are learning that hybrid innovations appear to follow a distinct pattern. These are four characteristics of a hybrid:

  1. It includes both the old and new technology, whereas a pure disruption does not offer the old technology in its full form.
  2. It targets existing customers rather than nonconsumers—that is, those whose alternative to using the new technology is nothing at all.
  3. It tries to do the job of the preexisting technology. As a result, the performance hurdle required to delight the existing customers is quite high because the hybrid must do the job at least as well as the incumbent product on its own, as judged by the original definition of performance. In contrast, companies that succeed at disruptive innovations generally take the capabilities of the new technology as a given and look for markets that will accept the new definition of what’s good.
  4. It tends to be less foolproof than a disruptive innovation. It does not significantly reduce the level of wealth and/or expertise needed to purchase and operate it.

A situation is now confronting those who are interested in bringing online learning to the schoolhouse that is similar to that confronted by Bucyrus Erie. The analogy goes like this: online learning is like hydraulics and the traditional classroom is like the old cable-actuated system. The sustaining option is to invent a hybrid solution that gives educators the best of both worlds—the advantages of online learning combined with all the benefits of the traditional classroom. The disruptive option is to deploy pure-play online learning in new models that depart from the traditional classroom and target nonconsumers who value the new technology for what it is—more customizable, affordable and convenient. The decision is important because in the end, disruptions almost always become good enough to meet the needs of mainstream customers. In other words, the disruptive models almost always overtake the sustaining models over the very long term.

In this context, we’re able to see that some models of blended learning are hybrids—sustaining innovations to the traditional classroom—whereas others are disruptive.

Blended learning hybrids

The models that fall within the hybrid zone of blended learning bear many of the traits of both online learning and the traditional classroom. When viewed through the lens of disruptive innovation theory, the models in the hybrid zone appear to be sustaining innovations relative to the traditional classroom.

Most of the Rotation models fall within the hybrid zone because they continue to do the job of the traditional classroom. They help to keep students in their seats in the classroom for the prescribed number of minutes, and they preserve the general structures of facilities, staffing and school operations.

For example, the Station Rotation model uses the same concept of station rotation—or centers—that has existed in primary schools for decades, and then merely adds an online station. At KIPP Empower, blended learning facilitates a marginal increase in the student-teacher ratio, but the traditional structure of age-based cohorts, the number and size of classrooms and the role of face-to-face instruction remain largely intact. Similarly, the Lab Rotation model starts with the traditional classroom and then merely adds a rotation to a computer or learning lab. The Flipped Classroom model also continues to do the job of the traditional classroom. Although teachers are implementing it in different ways, in general the Flipped Classroom is emerging as a technique that traditional teachers can use to improve student engagement rather than an innovation that upends the traditional classroom.

Indicative of their sustaining natures, the Station Rotation, Lab Rotation and Flipped Classroom models can all be implemented without major revisions to the resource allocations or processes already in place at a school. None of the models requires significant changes to physical facilities, staffing or scheduling (several do use the models to make some significant changes to these elements—it’s just not a requirement). Each introduces a hybrid solution that marries the traditional classroom with a new technology—online learning—to create something that performs better along the initial definition of what a good classroom is meant to do.

In contrast, the Flex, A La Carte and Enriched Virtual models, as well as the Individual Rotation model, each have the potential to be disruptive relative to the traditional classroom. They come at blended learning from a fundamentally different vantage point. Instead of beginning with the basic classroom and then asking how online learning can improve it, these models do the reverse. They start with the online courses and then look at how classroom experiences can enhance the virtual. Many of the traditional constructs of schooling are irrelevant in these models. Students in Flex programs have no need for age-based cohorts because all are moving through courses and modules at their own paces and on their own schedules. Students in Enriched Virtual programs divide their time between learning at a brick-and-mortar location and learning remotely online. They seldom visit the classroom every weekday, and that untethering from their seats has all sorts of implications for facility and faculty utilization. Students who are taking A La Carte courses dispense with the traditional classroom altogether for certain courses. Theirs is the clearest case of pure disruption.

The Individual Rotation model is the one Rotation model that has disruptive rather than sustaining characteristics. It differs from other Rotation models because students do not necessarily rotate to each available station or modality. Some students might learn completely online if that method works best for them. To implement an Individual Rotation model requires a fundamental redesign of staffing, facilities and scheduling. Interestingly enough, two of the most visible Individual Rotation models, those used at Carpe Diem schools and in School of One (now called New Classrooms), literally do away with the traditional classroom altogether and create a significantly larger open learning space as the main room for students.

Seeing what’s next with blended learning

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 to disrupt it. The models that are more disruptive, however, are positioned to transform the classroom model and become the engines of change over the longer term, particularly at the secondary level. Any hybrid variety of blended learning is likely to fall by the wayside as the pure disruption becomes good enough.

There are a few nuances to this prediction. One is that it applies to high school and, to some extent, middle school classrooms but not necessarily to the elementary school level. High schools and middle schools have rampant nonconsumption in areas such as Advanced Placement, foreign language and credit recovery courses, but these pockets of unmet demand are not prevalent—or at least have not yet been discovered in a way that stretches across the jobs that both students and schools or districts have to do—at the elementary school level. Furthermore, high school and middle school design typically features course-by-course modular architecture, which allows for modular online courses to substitute into the system more readily.

In contrast, the future of elementary schools at this point is likely to be largely, but not exclusively, a sustaining innovation story for the classroom. Outside of families that educate their children in a home-school environment, the closest that elementary schools come to presenting a disruptive path for online learning in schools is in the area of extended school hours and after-school programs. For example, Chicago Public Schools implemented a Flex model after-school program called the Additional Learning Opportunities Initiative to extend the school day using laptops and paraprofessionals for grades 1−8. If elementary schools continue to face budget cuts and need to reduce the number of traditional minutes in the school day, this could create a sizable nonconsumption opportunity and disruptive foothold. But this scenario has not yet played out at this point, and so for now, the prediction at the elementary level is unsure. Tutoring, in everything from speech therapy to English language learning as well as foreign-language learning, presents other possible areas of nonconsumption to drive the disruption of elementary school classrooms.

The prognosis for the disruption of the classroom at the high school and middle school levels appears clearer. It likely strains conventional wisdom, and predictably so. Whenever a disruptive innovation arrives, the established system usually views entrants in the emerging disruptive market as irrelevant to its well-being. The K−12 education sector is following suit. Flex, A La Carte and other disruptive blended-learning models appear as only small line items on a long list of education trends and possibilities. Indeed, as the theory would predict, in core academic subjects in traditional high schools that are blending, schools are largely implementing sustaining innovation models, mainly of the Station Rotation and Flipped Classroom varieties. The focus of these efforts seems to be on co-opting a potentially disruptive technology to apply it in a sustaining way to the existing system rather than to disrupt the system so that it becomes simpler, more accessible and more student-centered. But bit by bit, in areas of nonconsumption, the disruptive models are improving steadily and will, over time, replace the factory-model classrooms.

As this happens, the fundamental role of brick-and-mortar schools will pivot. Although traditional and hybrid classrooms are poised for disruption, we do not see brick-and-mortar schools as falling by the wayside any time soon. This is because although many areas of nonconsumption exist at the classroom level—particularly in secondary schools—little nonconsumption exists at the school level in the United States. Almost every student has access to a government-funded school of some sort. We predict that hybrid schools, which combine the old architecture with new learning models, will be the dominant model of schooling in the United States in the future, which is a good thing because the majority of students in America need school, or at least a supervised place to learn. Various societal stakeholders “hire” schools to do many things for their children, just one of which is learning. The custodial task—keeping children safe—is equally important for many. Schools provide important social services that range from counseling and mentoring to health services and free meals, and in the years ahead, schools will likely provide more of these services, not fewer, for some students. From the perspective of children, having a place to have fun with friends is vital. As a result, schools will likely focus more, for example, on providing well-kept facilities that students want to attend, face-to-face support, high-quality meals and a range of athletic, musical and artistic programs and will leverage the Internet for instruction.

Within those schools though, the disruptive models of blended learning will substantially replace traditional classrooms over the long term, particularly in secondary schools, because the importance of the traditional classroom will likely diminish. Schools will still play an essential function though in performing other important jobs. And over the long term, they will have the luxury of focusing their resources on truly nailing those jobs while online learning takes on more of the responsibility of delivering content and instruction.

Heather Staker is a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute and has authored several significant white papers on the rise of K–12 blended learning. Michael Horn is the co-founder and executive director, education of the Clayton Christensen Institute. He is the coauthor of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.