The future of education is online

By Matthew Ladner, Ph.D. 
Goldwater Institute
Education is on the verge of a shakeup every bit as profound as that facing the newspaper and music industries, according to Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, who has written in Education Next that online learning is a disruptive technology that will change education permanently.
Disruptive technologies begin by competing against the lack of consumption of a dominant technology. The disruptive technology benefits the very consumers who were not using the original product and eventually evolves into a more desirable product than the original.
The personal computer, for instance, began as an inferior but more accessible product to the then-dominant mainframe. Over time, through the normal process of incremental improvement, people realized that the disruptive technology was superior to the dominant technology. Suddenly, everyone wanted a PC and most mainframe makers went out of business, which is explored at some length here. This is a fascinating and complex argument.
Is there any evidence that we will actually ever view technology-based learning as better than the old-fashioned kind?  A recent headline in the New York Times says it all “Study Finds that Online Learning Beats the Classroom:”
Over the 12-year span, the report found 99 studies in which there were quantitative comparisons of online and classroom performance for the same courses. The analysis for the Department of Education found that, on average, students doing some or all of the course online would rank in the 59th percentile in tested performance, compared with the average classroom student scoring in the 50th percentile.
Nine national percentile points, or an 18 percent margin, is a very large difference. Need more proof? The Arizona public school with the largest value-added learning gain scores in both math and reading is a charter school in Yuma called Carpe Diem E-Learning Community.
I’ll write more about Carpe Diem another time, but for now, suffice it to say a disruption of our failing education system comes not a moment too soon.
Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president for research at the Goldwater Institute.


  1. The article in Education Next is a bit of technological determinism which focuses on the ‘successes’ of certain technological developments and not any of the failures. The AI winter provides a perfect counterexample and one which should not be overlooked.

    The online learning study cited in the New York TImes is largely focused on adult learning in university or continuing education, so the title does not ‘say it all’ if one is attempting to apply this to k-12 learning (What is interesting is they note ASU as a leader in the online learning domain).

    From my experiences with online learning as a consumer of it, it seems to be well geared to certain situations and not apropos for many others. Finding out when it is appropriate by itself and when it can help in tandem with other type of learning scenarios is important. Portraying it as a replacement for standard k-12 education will need a bit more evidence, to say the least, than what is offered in any of the sources cited.

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