Archive for the ‘Futurism’ category

Disruptive Innovation Theory and Public School Education: A Futurist Perspective

April 9, 2010

Disruptive innovation is a theory founded by Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen.  Disruptive innovation challenges the framework associated with sustainable innovations.  Sustainable innovations are internal improvements to an already existing system. Sustainable innovations can be referred to as periodic upgrades to systems.  Although considered innovative, change is slow and results reap only marginal improvements. A disruptive innovation, on the other hand, is an advancement that significantly alters the sustained delivery method or product.  This disruption eventually results into what can be interpreted as a natural evolution of a delivery method or product that ultimately displaces the formerly sustained method.

An early objective of asynchronous curriculum delivery models was to enhance the learning of advanced placement students through an independent study component.  This independent study component is asynchronous because the assignments and assessments are not bound by time and space as occurs with synchronous models within traditional brick and mortar institutions. As technological advancements emerged, asynchronous models became primarily associated with computer based media or online applications and software.  This independent approach to learning has become increasingly viable and accessible for all students through distance learning initiatives such as video conferencing, Blackboard ™, web casts, pod casts, blogs, Wikis™, Twitter™ and privatized online learning programs such as NovaNet™ and Plato™. These innovations allow students the freedom to access and respond to the information within a flexible timeframe and without the necessity for face-to-face synchronous experiences. Petroski (2008) states that there are existing colleges whose students never attend a course on a physical campus.

An interview transcription (Burkhardt & Duncan, 2008) notes Clayton Christensen as stating,

“Online learning, a disruptive innovation, is starting to take root in many areas in the United States—both in and outside of the public schools.
Home schooling is a big area where online learning is taking off, but so too are areas of non-consumption within public schools like AP courses, credit recovery, and alternative education. As they take root in these places, they will begin to improve, and as budget cuts eat at the existing offerings in public schools, online courses will take on more and more of the load as more affordable options for districts that offer an escape from the barriers of time of the school day and more one-on-one and customized learning. “(para. 39)

In the feature article How Do We Transform Our Schools?, Christensen and Horn (2008) support the customization of learning for the individual student by using computers to deliver a self- paced instructional model that offers alternatives to the expanding non-traditional population. The number of student enrollments in online programs has grown significantly over a period of seven years.  In 2000, there were approximately forty five thousand students participating in some form of online curriculum delivery model.  As of 2007, the numbers had grown by more than twenty times (Lagace, 2008). 

Credit recovery programs were established within urban public schools to support at-risk students in the accumulation of credits that were forfeit because of academic failure or during unstable periods resulting in lengthy absences from school. Further, these programs provided an avenue for the non-consumer, or in this case, the non-traditional student.  If administered ethically, a credit recovery program can provide an alternative to the traditional school setting while simultaneously reducing drop-out numbers [of the non-traditional student consumer] and increasing legitimate whole graduation numbers for the home school district.                     

On one hand, school district officials have supported credit recovery programs as a means to assist an at-risk student population in the academic reestablishment of themselves through online credit accumulation. On the other hand, potentially limitless implementation of such initiatives can be obstructed because “established organizations are trapped in the industry’s architecture” (Trotter, May 5, 2008) and use technology as a tool of efficiency rather than as a transformative tool. Program detractors question the validity of such online programs because, until recently, there were no evaluations on the quality and rigor of online credit recovery programs (Trotter, July 2, 2008).

A disruptive innovation initially offers an alternative option to a previously established method of delivery.  These innovations were not initially embraced by the masses due to a small population being recognized as a consumer.  In the larger, established delivery system, the population being served by the disruptive innovation is considered non-consumers.  This non-consumer is labeled as at-risk or non-traditional when compared to the traditional high school student.  As the disruptive innovation becomes increasingly efficient and the number of non-consumers grows, potential exists for the disruptive innovation to transform the organization (Christensen & Horn, 2008).  Initially, these online programs were structured to provide a substitution for advanced placement courses when a course or series of courses were unavailable in the traditional high school setting.  However, to the credit of the disruptive innovation theory, Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning (2006) states that more students are accessing the credit recovery program than the number of students enrolled in advanced placement courses.  This is, in part, due to the increased enrollment opportunities through “for-profit online schools, state-run virtual schools, non-profit groups, and homegrown district efforts.” (Davis, March 26, 2009, pg. 8)

Reports on public school systems state that the nation’s public schools are “trapped within existing architecture” (Wilson, 2008, para. 2) as they are experiencing a period of turbulence due to increasing demands for course availability and customized education plans against constrained budgets.  Advocates of online learning feel the current economic trend and the effect on school district budgets makes online learning an appealing consideration (Ash, March 18, 2009). Specifically, a quarter of America’s public schools cannot satisfy demands for advanced placement courses due to the deficient pool of certified instructors and the inability for school districts to offer these courses to the smaller population of non-consumers because of  budgetary constraints.  Additionally, the roughly fifty percent of students who have fallen behind in course credits are limited in their opportunities to reclaim credits due to course failure or time away from school (Horn, 2008).  The current economic trends should cause America’s public schools to reconsider the application of such technological innovations to a rapidly increasing service population at an affordable cost.

As the demand grows for alternatives to the traditional classroom setting, companies like Apex Learning, Pearson, and Plato Learning, Inc. have advanced the implementation of technology based course work for the advanced learner as well as the student in need of remediation and instructional interventions. The flexibility of such programming is embraced by an ever growing population that is within an ever changing social and domestic dynamic.  These programs hold particular value to school districts by retaining students on enrollment rosters as well as increasing graduating rates and reducing overall dropout numbers.

Disruptive innovation, through the application of an asynchronous curriculum delivery model, provides a considerable argument for the establishment of such curricula in the nation’s public schools.  Disruptive innovation may cause initial turbulence to an established organization. However, studies advocate for further investigation of such computer based programming as an enhancement to the educational process of the non-consumer. 

A technology based asynchronous education model does not threaten the traditional schooling program within a traditional brick and mortar model. Nonetheless, the effects of such programming are undeniably beneficial to a segment of the population that has been confounded with dilemmas directly related to the school environment or external dynamics and complexities unrelated to the school environment.  Subject response to inquiry discloses aspects, affects, and characteristics of the credit recovery program that are associated with time schedules, commitment, independence, and isolation from influence that is antithetical to a traditional school model.   Further consideration on the applicability of credit recovery programs on non-traditional student populations beyond those that are credit deficient is necessary to ascertain the various affects and positive behavioral influences such programming has on a non-traditional student population.  It is possible that a wider audience can be served through participation in an on site technology based alternative non-traditional schooling environment.

Ash, K. (March 18, 2009). Experts Debate Cost Savings of Virtual Ed. Education Week. 28(25), 9.            

Burkardt, V. & Duncan, G. (Interviewer) & Christensen, C. (Interviewee). (November 3, 2008).   Embracing Disruptive Change [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from

Christensen, C. & Horn, M. (summer, 2008). How do We Transform Our Schools? Education Next, volume 8. Retrieved from

Davis, M. (March 26, 2009). Breaking Away From Tradition. Education Week, 28(26), 8.

Horn, M. (2008) Career College Association Competitive Workforce Report. Retrieved from   

Lagace, M. (Interviewer) & Christensen, C. (Interviewee). (August 18, 2008). How Disruptive Innovation Changes Education: Q & A with Clayton Christensen [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from

Petroski, A. (December 7, 2008) ‘6 T’s’ Driving Fast-Paced Learning Evolution. Patriot News. Retrieved from

Trotter, A. (May 5, 2008). Online Education as Disruptive Innovation. Education Week.  Retrieved from

Trotter, A. (July 2, 2008) Ed Dept Releases Guide for Evaluating Online Learning. Education Week. Retrieved from

Watson, J. & Ryan, J. et al. (2006).  Keeping Pace with K – 12 Online Learning: A Review of State Level Policy and Practice.  Retrieved from

Wilson, L. (2008). Disruption as Innovation. Message posted to