Clay Christensen takes closer look at how online learning will disrupt K-12 education

When you first hear disruptive economics guru Clayton Christensen’s prediction that by 2019 half of all K-12 classes will be taught online, it’s easy to wonder if brick-and-mortar schools as we know them are on their way out.

But a new study released Thursday from his think tank, the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, depicts a future of education, particularly at the elementary school level, that isn’t nearly as stark as that. The paper, which refines theories on blended learning Christensen and his colleagues have laid out in the book “Disrupting Class” and other studies, introduces the idea of hybrid innovation. While Christensen’s famous theory of innovation mostly focuses on disruptive and sustaining innovations, the new paper offers the concept of the hybrid.

Often, the researchers argue, sectors experiencing disruption go through an extended phase in which old and new technology exist side by side, providing “the best of both worlds.” In education, many approaches to blended learning, which combine online instruction with traditional classroom learning, fall into this hybrid category.

“What’s clear to us from this theory is that schools will be here for the long haul,” said Michael Horn, executive director of the Institute, a co-author of the paper, as well as a co-author of “Disrupting Class.” “The future of learning is blended learning for the majority of students.”

In particular, he said, elementary schools will increasingly adopt less disruptive styles of blended learning that rotate online learning activities into a student’s schedule but still maintain the basic structure of a traditional teacher-led classroom. For example, schools will continue to “flip” their classrooms with videos (from Khan Academy or other sources) students can watch online, but mostly rely on classroom teachers to shape the experience.

At the middle school and high school levels, where students tend to have more personalized, modular schedules, he said, the school setting will remain in place but the classroom structure will be upended. In those grades, educators will increasingly adopt more disruptive blended learning models.

For example, students looking for more advanced subjects or languages not offered at their school could supplement their in-school experience with online classes – even massive open online courses – that barely involve offline instruction.

Horn said that one of his hopes for this most recent paper is that it helps give educators some clarity around what they can and can’t do to drive innovation in their classrooms and schools.

While superintendents, principals with some autonomy and a healthy budget, as well as philanthropists may be able to introduce more disruptive online learning models into their classrooms, Horn said, the most individual teachers and those with more limited budgets could likely do is encourage hybrid approaches.

“For the first time, it gave us a much clearer idea of what people in education could or could not do to bring about this future,” he said.