The nation's schools could be experiencing Disruptive Innovation--and it means more than just upheaval for the K-12 system

With COVID-19 cases again on the rise, schools are once again closing their doors this year. Meanwhile, the toll on many educators, students, and families feels crushing. It may be the biggest understatement of 2020 to say that the pandemic has thrown K–12 environments into turmoil.

By forcing conventional classrooms online, the pandemic exacerbates the challenges of keeping students engaged and on-track through single-paced, whole-group instruction. Frustrated by this reality, a sizable proportion of students, parents, and teachers have left their schools to seek alternatives such as homeschooling, virtual schools, micro-schools, and learning pods. These shifts beg the question: are we witnessing the beginning of K–12 disruption—the type Clayton Christensen described?

What is Disruptive Innovation?

Before I dive in on answering that question, let’s clarify what Disruptive Innovation means. Disruption, as defined by the Christensen Institute, is more than just upheaval. In our research on how organizations and sectors change, Disruptive Innovation describes a phenomenon whereby the incumbent technologies and business models in a sector get displaced by new technologies from new entrants in that sector.

The phenomenon starts when new entrants come up with seemingly inferior solutions to serve people who are unserved (nonconsumers) or overserved by established incumbents (low-end customers). Then, over time, these new entrants improve their offerings into compelling alternatives to incumbent solutions. The disruption of the sector unfolds as the people previously served by incumbents migrate to good-enough solutions from new entrants that also offer greater affordability, customizability, and convenience. Consider, for example, how Amazon disrupted conventional retail by initially setting up a website to sell books; or how Netflix disrupted Blockbuster by initially mailing people DVDs.

When Clayton Christensen first described this phenomenon in the mid-1990s, it captivated the attention of the business world because it explained how leading incumbents in an industry—the organizations that seemed to be doing everything right—were routinely upended by new entrants with seemingly inferior products. The implications for business strategy were huge, and the term quickly became a buzzword in both board meetings and startup communities.

With COVID-19 cases again on the rise, schools are once again closing their doors this year. Meanwhile, the toll on many educators, students, and families feels crushing. It may be the biggest understatement of 2020 to say that the pandemic has thrown K–12 environments into turmoil.

By forcing conventional classrooms online, the pandemic exacerbates the challenges of keeping students engaged and on-track through single-paced, whole-group instruction. Frustrated by this reality, a sizable proportion of students, parents, and teachers have left their schools to seek alternatives such as homeschooling, virtual schools, micro-schools, and learning pods. These shifts beg the question: are we witnessing the beginning of K–12 disruption—the type Clayton Christensen described?

What is Disruptive Innovation?

Before I dive in on answering that question, let’s clarify what Disruptive Innovation means. Disruption, as defined by the Christensen Institute, is more than just upheaval. In our research on how organizations and sectors change, Disruptive Innovation describes a phenomenon whereby the incumbent technologies and business models in a sector get displaced by new technologies from new entrants in that sector.

The phenomenon starts when new entrants come up with seemingly inferior solutions to serve people who are unserved (nonconsumers) or overserved by established incumbents (low-end customers). Then, over time, these new entrants improve their offerings into compelling alternatives to incumbent solutions. The disruption of the sector unfolds as the people previously served by incumbents migrate to good-enough solutions from new entrants that also offer greater affordability, customizability, and convenience. Consider, for example, how Amazon disrupted conventional retail by initially setting up a website to sell books; or how Netflix disrupted Blockbuster by initially mailing people DVDs.

When Clayton Christensen first described this phenomenon in the mid-1990s, it captivated the attention of the business world because it explained how leading incumbents in an industry—the organizations that seemed to be doing everything right—were routinely upended by new entrants with seemingly inferior products. The implications for business strategy were huge, and the term quickly became a buzzword in both board meetings and startup communities.

Nonetheless, Disruptive Innovation is a phenomenon, not an agenda. Like gravity, it happens as a course of nature when certain conditions are true. It is neither inherently good nor bad, but it can have both positive and negative consequences. Disruptive Innovation is often painful for the people who lose jobs and investments in the decline of incumbent organizations. Furthermore, any technological progress, whether disruptive or otherwise, can have unanticipated consequences—consider social media’s impact on political polarization and mental health. Nonetheless, Disruptive Innovation routinely produces marked social benefits. The technologies that flow from disruption are more affordable, customizable, convenient, user-friendly, and accessible than their predecessors. This means that advances in communication, transportation, health care, and the like that come about through Disruptive Innovation end up helping more people in more places.

Are K–12 schools getting disrupted?

The big disruption-related question right now in K–12 education is whether learning pods, micro-schools, and other alternatives will disrupt conventional schools. At first glance, these models seem to fit the pattern: in their infancy, they’re unable to offer everything conventional schools provide; but they initially serve students and families who are locked out of childcare, structured learning environments, and other services they need from conventional schooling. However, checking the box on a few disruption look-fors doesn’t guarantee disruption any more than having wings can guarantee that ostriches and penguins will fly.

The nonconsumption problem

The pandemic has certainly created nonconsumption—a key starting point for disruptive innovations. Until last March, many families relied on schools to provide a range of services, including reliable childcare, social communities, and a structured setting for learning. Then COVID-19 created a void, and pods and micro-schools sprung up to fill in.

But this response to nonconsumption differs from the normal pattern of disruption. Normally, serving nonconsumption gives disruptive innovations an opportunity to grow and improve without inciting a competitive response from incumbents. But the nonconsumers of schooling today are not families and students that established schools routinely ignore. Rather, established schools see students who leave for pods or micro-schools as lost enrollments; and as the pandemic draws on, conventional schools will respond to try to rake those enrollments back. Some are already setting up learning hubs and virtual schools of their own.

The affordability problem

Second, pods and micro-schools are too expensive and complicated to be disruptive. Disruptive innovations don’t enter as premium offerings that command premium prices. Rather, they appeal to people by offering affordability and convenience. In contrast, parents take on a massive workload to create their own pods or micro-schools. Some may outsource that work by hiring a teacher to man the ship, but then affordability goes out the window. Splitting the cost of a teachers’ salary among a group of 2-3 families is nowhere near as cheap as free public education. So when it comes to affordability, the only potential disruptive path for pods and mirco-schools is at the low end of the private school market.
source: Read More, eSchool News

Leave a Reply