Online learning and the theory of disruptive innovation: Recent history, and a hopeful future
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Published: 01-Aug-2011

Online education is already playing a crucial role in the delivery of educational services, according to Michael B. Horn of the Innosight Institute

In his kickoff address at last week’s conference in Oklahoma City on “Education in the Digital Age,” Horn pointed to the wave of dramatic social and educational change driven by high tech. 

The sequence of events following the emergence of computers was one focus of his comments – sketching the years from main frames to mini computers, to smaller devices and finally to handheld notebooks that include telephone ability. Today, as prices drop and capacity soars, a process of “disruptive innovation” continues to unfold, leading to greater affordability and accessibility. 

In his address at the symposium, held at the Oklahoma History Center near the state Capitol, and sponsored by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Horn listed an array of examples of how digital/online education is already “huge”: 

Credit recovery (assisting a study to fill in a requirement on the way to graduation), dropouts, advanced placement/AP classes, scheduling conflicts (providing a means for students to take required classes that would not otherwise fit into a school’s available schedule times), home school education, homebound education (students who cannot attend regular class instruction), small and rural school use of online systems, unit recovery, disaster preparedness instruction, tutoring, professional development for teachers, Pre-K instruction, after school instruction, in the home classes, classes for incarcerated youth, continued instruction during periods of in-school suspensions, school bus commutes, summer school programs, and coping with teacher absenteeism.

Horn projects that by 2019, 50 percent of K-12 courses will be offered online. As it is, he explained, there are now 4 million students who are learning online. In all, 39 states already have some forms of online learning. Of those, 30 have supplemental state-led programs. 

Even after the advent of digital learning is in full swing, he projects that schools will still exist, for at least 90 percent of students. Still, the portion of digital instruction and class work received within schools will continue to rise. 

Pointing to the work of Khan Academy and other providers of online education content, Horn reported the dramatic improvement of the quality and utility of material delivered via the Internet. 

Horn said his study of digital learning has taught him that for most people, there are different learning needs at different times of life. Whereas, “we still build school schedules and school days around the old factory model,” and the “cookie-cutter” directives fail precisely because schools operate under conflicting mandates. 

When people talk about flexibility in teaching, and meeting the needs of individual students, he said, “The truth is that the desirability of flexibility is obvious to special needs educators. Online delivery has allowed that flexibility that it is said we need for special needs students.” 

Horn contends that online instruction will allow “a move toward a truly student-centric model. … As technology improves, the predictability of success of these models also improves for blended learning, schools and student pacing.” 

In perhaps the best quip line of the day, Horn shared the observation that America’s educational system “remains obsessed with ‘seat time’ in schooling. But too often, in that obsession, we’re assessing the wrong end of the student.” 

Rather than seat time, he said, “To meet the needs of students we should instead measure knowledge of the desired content. The system needs to become student-based and outcomes-based.”

In other sessions at the symposium, the Cato Institute’s Andrew J. Coulson focused on “How Policy Can Foster and Protect the Digital Education Marketplace.” 

Dan Lips of Arizona’s Goldwater Institute focused on K-12 online learning, suggesting strategies Oklahoma can pursue to accelerate the pace of positive change. 

Other speakers at the digital-learning symposium included Rose Hernandez of Wisconsin, an educator who is active in the National Coalition for Public School Options

She appeared in tamed with two educators from the Oklahoma Virtual Academy: Cheryl Tatum and Audra Carr, as well as academy students Dylan Marshall (12 years old) and David Marshall (10) and their mother, Lauren. 

At noon hour of the symposium, University of Oklahoma Classics Professor J. Rufus Fears spoke about the lessons of history in eras of dramatic technological change. His luncheon address was sponsored by the Foundation for Educational Choice.

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