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Clayton M. Christensen: Online learning for student-centered innovation

As budget woes and rising pension and health care costs increasingly cut into the resources for our schools, we have an opportunity to use this crisis to transform them.

All students have different learning needs at different times. Most of us know this intuitively. I remember being in high school in Utah and struggling to master a physics concept while my best friend grasped it immediately. Much later in my life, when the same concept was explained to me in a different way, and I had more time to work with it, I understood. We all have friends who excelled in certain classes but struggled in others.

Yet our schools are not built to personalize for these different learning needs at different times. There is far more standardization than customization.

The reason is that schools teach using a monolithic batch system. When a class is ready to move on to a new concept, all students move on, regardless of how many had mastered the previous concept. On the other hand, if some students are able to master a class in a couple months, they remain in the class for the whole semester. Both the bored and the bewildered see their opportunity to achieve — and need to experience real success — shredded by the system.

Why is this? It's not that teachers, administrators, and others in the school system don't appreciate the need for customization. They do. The system in which they work, however, constrains their ability to customize because all of its parts are highly interdependent.

If our goal is to educate every student to the highest potential, then schools need to move away from this monolithic classroom model and toward a student-centric educational one with a modular design that enables mass customization.

The way transformation has occurred in nearly ever sector is through the force known as disruptive innovation — a force we must now harness.

In education, online learning represents this disruptive innovation, and as such, it presents a promising opportunity to make this shift. The proper use of technology as a platform for learning offers a chance to modularize the system and thereby customize learning by allowing students to progress at different paces and through different paths as needed.

Utah is no stranger to online learning. For more than 15 years now, the state and its districts have been using it in classic disruptive innovation fashion to serve areas of nonconsumption — places where the alternative is literally nothing at all. The current budget crises that at first seemed to be a threat to our schools actually create opportunities to transform them to this student-centric system, as they increase these areas of nonconsumption where school leaders can deploy online learning.

Disruptive innovations tend to be simpler and more affordable than existing services at the outset. But little by little, they improve predictably. Online learning fits the mold. At first it was most often used for distance learning. Increasingly, however, online learning is being implemented in brick-and-mortar schools in what is called blended learning; the content is becoming more and more robust for individual learners so that it motivates students to engage in deeper learning, and the communication technology is enhancing the ability of teachers and students to interact.

With the legislation now moving through the Utah House of Representatives, there is an opportunity to drive and shape this improvement further so that it is focused on each individual student. By creating competition between providers based on delivering positive student outcomes — and freeing up the process by which they get there — Utah has a significant opportunity to drive this innovation forward by leaps and bounds.

Embracing a disruptive approach that is mindful of children's different needs presents a promising path toward motivating students to maximize their human potential and realize their most daring dreams.

Clayton M. Christensen, a native of Salt Lake City, is the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He has published numerous best-selling books on innovation, including "The Innovator's Dilemma." Christensen is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board.