Computer-based learning could transform education through ‘Disruptive Innovation’

Computer-based learning is on the cusp of transforming traditional public education, say Harvard Business School's Clayton M Christensen and his colleague Michael B Horn in the summer 2008 issue of Education Next. Based on their analysis of data on enrollments, about half of all education courses will be delivered online in just over a decade's time.

In 2007, roughly 1 million students were enrolled in online courses–an increase 22 times greater than in 2000 but still representing only about 1 percent of all education courses nationally. By using a substitution curve to mathematically predict the pace of adoption, however, Christensen and Horn suggest that in about six years 10% of all courses will be computer-based, and by 2019 about 50 percent of courses will be delivered online.

“After a long period of incubation, the world will be poised to begin adopting computer-based learning at a much more rapid pace,” explain Christensen and Horn.

Why the sudden change? Computer-based learning possesses technological and economic advantages–including customized learning and low-cost delivery–that will end-run the traditional public education model.

While estimates vary depending on circumstance, many current online education providers have costs that range from $200 to $600 per course, far less than the current public education model. And technologically, computer-based learning has the potential to scale quality with relative ease–a powerful advantage.

More than twenty-five states now have organizations providing web-based courses. In 2006-07, one-third of high school seniors in Utah took a class online through the state's Electronic High School last year; 52,000 students were served by the Florida Virtual School and 4,600 students were enrolled in the Georgia Virtual School.

A new national poll from Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University (PEPG) shows that a majority of Americans favor using public funds to support online courses that enable students to take advanced coursework or to help students in rural schools get access to a broader range of courses. Sixty-nine % of those surveyed said they would be willing to let their child take a high school course on line for credit. These findings are part of a larger survey on public attitudes about education conducted by Education Next and PEPG and are currently available here. The complete findings from the poll will be released in the fall 2008 issue of Education Next.

For computer-based learning to transform education, say Christensen and Horn, it must be implemented disruptively, not by competing against the existing system but by serving students who cannot currently receive the courses they desire.

There are many pockets of non-consumption in public education where students would benefit from online learning rather than face the alternative–nothing at all. For example, 33% of schools nationwide offered no Advanced Placement (AP) classes in 2002

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