Why do our schools struggle to improve? One critical reason is that today’s schools were not designed to do what we ask of them at present.
Today’s schools were designed over a century ago to emulate the efficient factories of that era. By standardizing the way they teach and test, school systems could educate children as standardized plants produced widgets. The model—in which we batch students up in classrooms and teach the same thing to them in exactly the same way—worked well enough when most students went directly to industrial jobs.
In 1900 only 17 percent of all jobs required knowledge workers, whereas more than 60 percent do today. We now ask more students to master more challenging subject matter and develop more specialized skills. In the knowledge economy, people need to be more flexible on the one hand, while on the other they benefit from cultivating their individual talents and interests. Factory-style education falls short, therefore, as it is an ineffective way for most children to learn and to maximize their potential.
So, while the world has changed, our schools have not. As every parent knows, each child has different learning needs at different times. If we hope to have all children succeed in school and in life, then we need a system that can customize for different student needs—the exact opposite of standardization.
We have an education system that mandates the amount of time students spend in class but does not expect each child to master her learning. The result is that students don’t receive the support they need to master each subject before they move on to the next one. This creates gaps in most children’s education—gaps that haunt them later in their schooling.
How do we create change? For years, advocates of reform and choice for children and their families in education have tried to accomplish that goal by attacking the U.S. public school system head-on. For the most part, it hasn’t worked. And in the notable exceptions where it has, it’s been a bruising battle.
Attacking any dominant organization directly rarely produces transformative results. Taking a disruptive path instead—by going around and underneath the system—yields more successful outcomes. From the airline industry to the mail business and from banking to the trucking industry, the process of disruption has transformed countless regulated and unionized industries.
Disruptive innovations can transform a sector marked by expensive, inaccessible, and complicated products or services into one in which the products or services are affordable, convenient, and simple to use. They first take root in simple, undemanding applications within a new market or arena of competition. Little by little, disruptions predictably improve. At some point, disruptive innovations become good enough to handle more complicated problems—and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.
It is happening in education right now. Disruption, in the form of online learning, is beginning to sweep through the U.S. With its rapid growth and built-in ability to help students discover different learning pathways (along with rapid feedback to inform students what to tackle next), online learning has the potential to bring true choice and customization to millions of students and their families. And because these disruptive systems are also decentralized, they deliver individualized learning opportunities unbounded by school or geography.
Online learning started in areas outside of the heart of the K–12 education system, where the alternative was nothing at all. For example, some students wanted to take advanced courses districts couldn’t afford to offer. Other students needed to recover credits or earn degrees after they had dropped out of school. Of course, homeschool and homebound students came in search of the best and most flexible curricula.
Just as every disruptive innovation does, online learning is now improving and expanding its reach. One way it is improving is that it is accommodating the non-academic roles traditional schools once played. The vast majority of American families, for example, like schools because they keep children safe and protected and allow them to have social ties and fun with their friends. Many parents also work. As a result, although online learning initially was a distance-learning phenomenon, increasingly it’s happening in blended-learning environments.
Blended learning is defined as a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning with some element of student control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of learning and at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.
Top charter schools—including established ones from networks like KIPP as well as more recent startups like Carpe Diem and Rocketship Education—are leveraging blended learning to reach every single child and make education more affordable. Districts from Milpitas, California, to Quakertown public schools in Pennsylvania, from Los Angeles to New York City, are moving more aggressively to harness the power of individualized learning and escape from the conventional classroom system.
And states, including Louisiana and Utah, have created new laws that give students unprecedented choice to pick the online course from the provider that matches their needs. And providers of online courses only get paid their full fee upon a student’s successful completion of the course—which builds in a new level of accountability.
Online learning is on the march. As it grows and improves in the coming years, it promises to disrupt and escape from the conventional classroom. If we leverage it correctly, online learning has the potential to provide each child with a customized learning experience that matches her needs and allows her to realize her fullest potential.