18 Aug 2008  Research & Ideas

How Disruptive Innovation Changes Education

HBS professor Clayton M. Christensen, who developed the theory of disruptive innovation, joins colleagues Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson to advocate for ways in which ideas around innovation can spur much-needed improvements in public education. A Q&A with the authors of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Key concepts include:

  • As an industry, education has certain elements that have made the market difficult to penetrate and lasting reform hard to come by.
  • As a general rule, the most promising areas for innovation are pockets or areas that appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents and where there are people who would like to do something but cannot access the available offering.
  • To improve education as an industry, businesspeople might consider investing in technological platforms that will allow for robust educational user networks to emerge.

 

How can schools around the world educate their students better? What does the future hold? Most researchers who study these questions in the field of education peer through the lenses of sociology and public policy. HBS professor Clayton M. Christensen and colleagues chose a different approach—the theory of disruptive innovation, often applied to a variety of other industries, such as technology and health care. Christensen's theory was first explored in his two New York Times bestsellers, The Innovator's Dilemma (1997) and The Innovator's Solution (with Michael E. Raynor, 2003).

His latest book, coauthored with Michael B. Horn (HBS MBA '06) and Curtis W. Johnson, shows how the theory of disruptive innovation-which in a nutshell explains why organizations experience difficulty with particular types of innovation and how they might systematically succeed-offers promising insights for improving public education. The book is titled Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

According to the authors, "Our goal in writing this book was to dig beneath the sorts of surface explanations for why schools struggle to improve, and the lenses on innovation, which is our field of specialty, proved a great way to help us do just that."

Christensen, Horn, and Johnson recently teamed up via e-mail to answer a few questions from HBS Working Knowledge on the best paths to better education for more schoolchildren.

Martha Lagace: You have decided to study education through the lenses of your research on innovation. How did you come to approach the problem in this way, and what makes the analysis of public education similar to, and different from, other industries you have studied in-depth, such as computers and health care?

Authors: Nearly a decade ago, representatives who had played pioneering roles in the chartered school movement came to us and said, "If you'd just stand next to the world of public education and examine it through the lenses of your research on innovation, we bet you could understand more deeply how to improve our schools."

The ability of these lenses to shed new light on complicated problems has been proven in contexts ranging from national defense to semiconductors; from health care to retailing; and from automobiles to financial services to telecommunications. When we took the people from Education|Evolving up on their invitation, we saw quickly that the same was true in education. Our goal in writing this book was to dig beneath the sorts of surface explanations for why schools struggle to improve, and the lenses on innovation, which is our field of specialty, proved a great way to help us do just that.

Education has many unique facets to it. As people have been quick to point out, in the United States, education is highly regulated; it is first and foremost about the future of children—and thus the future of our country as well—so the stakes are high; and it has certain elements that have made the market difficult to penetrate and lasting reform hard to come by.

That said, our lenses show how any organization can innovate successfully, and the forces at work in schools and districts are the same as those in other organizations. In fact, one very surprising thing is that, on average, schools have done a better job adjusting to disruptions imposed upon them than have companies in the private sector. Our research shows that the classic signs of disruption are now occurring in the world of education, in the same ways they occur in the other contexts we have studied.

Q: As you write, "Disruption is a positive force. It is the process by which an innovation transforms a market whose services or products are complicated and expensive into one where simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability characterize the industry." How in essence do you think about disruption vis-à-vis public education? Where do you see the most room for innovation?

A: The lesson from all industries is that the most promising areas for innovation are pockets of what we call "nonconsumption"—areas that appear unattractive or inconsequential to the industry incumbents and where there are people who would like to do something but cannot access the available offering. By targeting these areas, you have a much greater chance of launching successfully a disruptive innovation that can transform a market.

The puzzle in U.S. education was that, at first blush, there are no obvious areas of nonconsumption; virtually everyone is required to attend school. If you take a deeper look, however, you see that actually there are many pockets of nonconsumption in education in the United States. For example, in many schools, if a student fails a course, he or she has no recourse to make up the class and must simply move on to the next course. There is no option for credit recovery. Likewise, no school can possibly offer all 34 Advanced Placement courses that are out there, and yet there are often students in the schools who would love to take some of the ones that are not offered.

In these foothold areas, computer-based or online learning is beginning to fill the void and plant itself and make inroads in the education system in classic disruptive fashion. Online learning has increased from 45,000 enrollments in 2000 to roughly 1 million in 2007, and shows signs of continuing to grow at an even more rapid pace.

Computer-based learning is an exciting disruption because it allows anyone to access a consistent quality learning experience; it is convenient since someone can take it virtually anywhere at any time; it allows a student to move through the material at any pace; it can customize for a student's preferred learning style; and it is more affordable than the current school system.

Q: What is the promise you see in this regard in the emerging online user networks?

A: Disruption tends to be a two-stage process. In the first stage, although the products are more accessible to users, they are typically still relatively complicated to build. We see this in education; effective and engaging computer-based learning products are not easy to make.

Within a few more years, however, two factors that were absent in stage 1 that are critical to the emergence of stage 2 will have fallen into place. The first will be robust platforms that facilitate the creation of user-generated content. The second will be the emergence of a user network, whose analogues in other industries include eBay and YouTube. A user network is a type of business model in which customers exchange with each other. For example, telecommunications is a user network because we send information to you, and you send it to us.

In education, this will mean that the tools of the software platform will make it so simple to develop online learning products that students will be able to build products that help them teach other students. Parents will be able to assemble tools to tutor their children. And teachers will be able to create tools to help the different types of learners in their classrooms. These instructional tools will look more like tutorial products than courseware initially. And rather than being "pushed" into classrooms through a centralized selection process, they will be pulled into use through self-diagnosis—by teachers, parents, and students who don't have access to another tutoring option.

Q: How would you suggest businesspeople lend their background and expertise to improving education?

A: It's a good question. Given the impact businesspeople have in society, it is crucial that they understand the root causes of why schools have struggled so much and why so many reform efforts have failed historically. Having this understanding will better guide them as they think through which school-improvement programs and initiatives to support.

We are already seeing a relatively big outpouring of activity from businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs behind computer-based learning solutions of various stripes—from mobile-platform solutions to educational gaming to online learning courses for computers in classrooms. This interest and activity should allow us to make great progress in the years ahead.

We also recommend investing in technological platforms that will allow for the robust educational user networks to emerge. Doing so will have extraordinary impact, and funding the development of these platforms and user networks within which learning tools can be exchanged should be financially rewarding for investors.

Q: How would you like to extend this research? What are you working on next?

A: The book is just the beginning. We have founded a nonprofit think tank, Innosight Institute, to promote the ideas from our work to the stakeholders in the system so that we can help create meaningful change. We also are employing the think tank to continue our research and improve our recommendations and understanding of the problems and potential solutions. For example, we are looking at more examples of on-the-ground disruptions in schools to better understand this change and to better understand the key elements of reforms that must be facilitated to bring about improved learning opportunities for everyone. This will help us better inform stakeholders at all levels and in all domains about what they can do to make a positive impact.

We're excited to work with partners and interested parties to make strides in the years ahead in one of the biggest problems facing our country.

About the authors

Martha Lagace is the senior editor of HBS Working Knowledge.

Clayton M. Christensen is the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He is the author or coauthor of five books, including The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution.

Michael B. Horn (HBS MBA '06) is cofounder and executive director, education, of Innosight Institute.

Curtis W. Johnson is a writer and consultant who has served as a college president, head of a public-policy research organization, and chief of staff to Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson. Johnson and his colleagues were among the early proponents of what has become the chartered school movement.