The rise of online education


Shamus Ian Fatzinger/ Fairfax County Times Hayfield Secondary School teacher Ken Halla helps a student log into their account on a classroom laptop that students will use to access their textbooks online. (Shamus Ian Fatzinger)
October 11, 2011

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn are co-founders of Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on education and innovation, and co-authors of the award-winning book, “Disrupting Class.”

This year’s math classes for many students in the Los Altos School District in California look radically different from those in the past. Powered in part by the Khan Academy—a non-profit that offers free educational resources such as online lessons and online assessments—the school district is expanding the “blended-learning” pilot it ran last year. The district’s fifth, sixth and seventh graders learn online for a significant portion of their in-class math periods at the path and pace that fit their individual needs. Meanwhile, teachers will coach the students to keep up with their math goals and help them apply the math concepts in small-group and class-wide projects.

Online learning isn’t just grabbing the imagination of educators in Silicon Valley. In the nation’s capital, D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has expressed interest in bringing one of the more successful blended-learning school models, Rocketship Education, to the district. And in Florida, entering ninth graders will now have to complete at least one online course during high school in order to graduate.

For the first time in roughly a century—since the transition from the one-room schoolhouse to the classroom- and age-based school—a dramatic change in the basic way we structure our educational system is afoot.

Online learning is on the rise in the nation’s public schools. In the year 2000, roughly 45,000 K-12 students took an online course. In 2010, roughly 4 million did, according to Ambient Insight. And, according to our projections, 50 percent of all high school courses will be taken online by 2019—the vast majority of them in blended-learning school environments with teachers, which will fundamentally move learning beyond the four walls and traditional arrangement of today’s all-too-familiar classroom.

As a disruptive innovation—an innovation that transforms a sector from one that was previously complicated and expensive into one that is far simpler and more affordable—the rise of online learning carries with it an unprecedented opportunity to transform the schooling system into a student-centric one that can affordably customize for different student needs by allowing all students to learn at their appropriate pace and path, thereby allowing each student to realize her fullest potential.

Whether it does this in the coming years will depend on several variables.

Entrepreneurs and investors—both for-profit and non-profit—are doing their part, as they seek to fashion the future by solving the problems they see students and teachers struggling with today.

Some, like those at Los Altos School District and Rocketship Education, are creating new learning and schooling models and liberating students and teachers.

Others are working to create adaptive-learning platforms. Just as Netflix or Amazon can help recommend the right movies or books based on your personal preferences, these platforms hope to match the right learning experiences for a student at any given time based on a variety of learning heuristics.

Open and free educational resources abound online. New companies are creating online social learning experiences. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are working to improve cognitive tutor software that utilizes the most cutting-edge cognitive science and neuroscience to improve learning for individual students. And entrepreneurs are creating educational video games and embedding gaming techniques inside online learning experiences to boost student motivation and make learning fun.

But critical questions remain for policymakers, regulators and those who manage schools. If they do not put in place the rules and structures that both leverage and incentivize the innovations in development, then there is no guarantee that the public education system will be transformed into a student-centric one.

To do this, policymakers and others must move beyond the old input-based metrics used to micro-manage how people in the existing public-education system work and instead embrace outcomes-based regulations that reward individual student learning gains and liberate educators on the ground to figure out the best way to achieve those gains.

Focusing on inputs has the effect of locking a system into a set way of doing things and inhibiting innovation. In education, that means supporting a system in which 30 percent of students nationwide drop out of high school. Focusing on outcomes, on the other hand, encourages continuous improvement against a set of overall goals, which can unlock a path toward the creation of a high-quality student-centric education system.

Perhaps most critical is to move beyond today’s time-based rules—those policies, regulations and arrangements that hold time as a constant and learning as the variable, which inhibits the ability to move to a competency-based learning system. There are a series of these sorts of regulations holding back the future of learning, such as seat-time rules that tie funding to the number of minutes students sit in classrooms rather than based on what they are learning, and assessments given at one time of the year based on one’s age.

School districts like Los Altos are doing their utmost to fight against these limiting regulations. But as millions of students returning to school are told they can achieve anything they want, we must continue to drive for a systematic transformation to ensure that future is truly within their reach.

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