The Great Potential of Online Learning

What impact do you believe online learning will have on education in the future?

I think about the answer to the question above in terms of the potential of online learning to address issues of equity and learning in US public schools. Have you read Disrupting Class by Christensen, Horn, & Johnson (2011)? The book is a both an analysis of why technology use, including online learning, in public education in the US has failed to be transformative, while being a potential solution to the problems of modern public schools. It is also a description of what it would take for this to happen.

Christensen, et al. apply a business model called “disruptive innovation” to the issue of technology use in schools and suggest that technology will never play a role in mitigating problems of equity unless we stop trying to paste it into our current models of education. Instead, they suggest, we need to look at where there is demand (where schools fail to meet service needs) and use technology as an alternative there.  Here are some examples from the book:

  • Students who need to take AP classes in schools where there are not enough students to offer an entire traditional class could learn online
  • Classrooms where there is not enough attention paid to diverse learning styles of students could bring in online opportunities for students to learn through games, project-based learning, and access to media rich resources.

I buy the argument that online learning cannot reach its potential if it is placed, in Christensen’s words, “in competition” with the status quo. It is initially cheaper and much easier to avoid change. I think there is some evidence that disruptive innovation is creeping in.  The gradual increase in MOOCs is one. Students can have access not only to expertise at institutions they could not previously “attend” but also have the opportunity to develop academic and professional networks with like-minded learners. This opens up countless future opportunities of learning.  Second, in 2010 the Obama administration released a National Education Technology Plan, which calls on educators to embrace innovation and empower students to take control of their own learning.  It demands leveraging technology to connect to resources beyond the classroom and to a wider set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors (Transforming American education: Learning powered by technology, 2010 – executive summary here[PDF]).

We’re on the right track, but must tread carefully. I think there is a great potential for access to online learning and other technologies that enhance learning to become yet another privilege available to the privileged.  Instead, the potential impact of online learning to enhance education should be fostered where it is truly disruptive innovation – the most underfunded public schools, where our current education models are falling short.

Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Johnson, C. W. (2011). Disrupting class: how disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns (2nd ed.). McGraw Hill.

Transforming American education: Learning powered by technology. (2010). Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. Washington DC. Retrieved from

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