Dr. Matthew Ladner

On these pages I have described how the primordial soup of a market system could transform education. In their book, Disrupting Class:  How Disruptive Technologies Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen and Michael B. Horn argue that online technology will reformat American K-12 education, sooner rather than later.

Online learning has grown rapidly, but the impact to date has hardly been revolutionary. It’s been interesting, but, ultimately, only a niche activity. Christensen and Horn, however, maintain that filling niches is exactly how a disruptive technology such as online learning advances.

Distance learning, for example, is very popular in Alaska, where children might otherwise have to commute vast distances through dangerous weather to attend a traditional school. Homeschoolers have also taken to online learning.

The authors point out that only about a third of American high schools have Advanced Placement courses offered on campus. Better, many school administrators are beginning to reason, to adopt such courses online than not to offer them at all.

Christensen and Horn describe the progress of online learning to date as being broadly similar to past disruptive technologies. The tipping point comes years after the disruptive technology has filled various niches. Through the normal course of incremental improvement, the disruptive technology becomes superior to the dominant technology. Once this occurs, the disruptive technology displaces the once dominant technology to become dominant itself.

Projecting from data available and based upon past experience, the authors estimate that 50 percent of K-12 courses will be delivered online by 2019.

This “out with the old, and in with the new” prediction is pretty bold. In this case, however, the “old” is the labor-intensive method of classroom instruction that has gone more or less unchanged since Socrates. Could we really be on the verge of displacing the basic method of education content delivery?

Designers may improve online programs to the point that they will be of demonstrably better quality than the tried and true methods. For example, innovators are working on computer-based learning programs that will adapt to the individual learning styles of children. These programs present information in a variety of ways, figure out which way works best for each child and adapt the presentation accordingly.

Personalized, self-paced learning also offers enormous promise. Both fast and slow learners often find themselves frustrated by the pace of teaching that suits the average learner.

Dr. Matthew Ladner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute and an expert on educational reform and school choice. Dr. Ladner holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston.
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