Data Support Disruption Theory As Online, Blended Learning Grow

When Disrupting Class hit the bookstores five years ago, it contained a prediction that stunned many: by 2019, we said, 50 percent of all high school courses would be delivered online in some form or fashion. The prediction was built off of data from third-party sources that had been collected over the previous eight years on the number of students taking online courses. At the time, calculations using that data also indicated that the majority of the online learning would occur in blended-learning environments.

Since then, as online and blended learning have grown in K–12 education, it’s been difficult to know how that prediction has held up because there has been a paucity of good, trustworthy data.

The California Learning Resource Network (CLRN) has stood out, however, as one group trying to fill the data gap about what’s happening in California’s schools—and it’s done its work in a nuanced way that gives a reasonably meaningful picture, not just high-level aggregate numbers.

The results from its latest survey of California districts and charters, released May 20, shows that although 46 percent of respondents report having students participate in online or blended learning, just 19 percent of elementary districts and charters engage in online learning whereas a whopping 73 percent of unified and high school districts and charters do. Furthermore, of those districts or charters that say they have students learning online, 78 percent indicated that high-school students participate in online learning; 49 percent said middle-school students do; and 28 percent said elementary-school students are engaged in online learning.

Not only that, but how schools are blending online learning differs starkly between elementary schools and secondary schools as well. According to the census, the top three blended models across all districts and charters are the Rotation model (47 percent), the A La Carte model (40 percent), and the Enriched Virtual model (33 percent). When these numbers are disaggregated by grade span, however, a different picture emerges. In elementary schools engaged in online learning, Rotation blended learning is the dominant model with 80 percent of the implementations; just 15 percent of elementary districts/charters utilize more than one blended model. In unified and high school districts/charters engaging in online learning, however, the top model is the A La Carte model (48 percent), and 38 percent employ more than one blended model.

What’s so striking is how much this accords with the analysis we released last week in our paper, “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive?,” which introduced the theory of hybrids. The data is supporting that theory.

In the paper we concluded that some models of blended learning were hybrids— sustaining innovations relative to the traditional classroom—whereas other models of blended learning were disruptive to the traditional classroom. Most Rotation models are sustaining innovations, whereas the A La Carte model, for example, is disruptive.

The theory suggests that the disruptive models of blended learning will be the agents of change over the long term, but we placed a caveat on this prediction. In elementary schools, because there appears to be little nonconsumption within, the theory leads us to expect that the sustaining innovation Rotation forms of blended learning will dominate in the long run, and the disruptive models will play less of a role. Given the CLRN survey results that say that 80 percent of elementary schools engaged in online learning are using a Rotation model, this appears to be proving true.

In contrast, in high school, and to a lesser extent middle school, we said that in the long run, the disruptive models of blended learning will substantially replace traditional classrooms because there are so many areas of nonconsumption for online learning to plant itself. In the CLRN survey, we indeed see the A La Carte blended-learning model as dominant in secondary schools. In the past, the presence of nonconsumption also led us to believe that online learning would grow much faster in secondary schools initially, which remains true according to these latest results. The survey also says that many high schools use Rotation models, but this could accord with our paper, in which we suggest that Rotation models will be the dominant form of blended learning in core classes in high school in the immediate future. My suspicion is that if we had a bit more detail on the data, this would prove accurate.

The survey doesn’t answer whether our 50 percent by 2019 prediction is on track, but it sheds some light on the question. Even in a state where there are many policies that limit the growth of online and blended learning (Digital Learning Now! gives California an “F” for its digital-learning policies), digital learning is still spreading, and the theory of disruptive innovation allows us to understand and anticipate that growth.

-Michael Horn,

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