How Disruptive Innovation Is Accelerating the Growth of Alternative Learning Models

Disruptive innovation is reshaping how children learn and expanding access to alternative education models.

Disruptive innovation usually begins on the margins, with a few, intrepid users embracing a new product or service. Abetted by new technologies, a disruptive innovation penetrates the mainstream when its quality is proven to be as good, if not better, than more established models.

According to author and investor, Michael Horn, a classic example of disruptive innovation is Airbnb, which began on the margins as a couch-surfing tool and then, enabled by technology, upended the hospitality industry.

“Initially we thought [disruptive innovation] could be any low-cost innovation,” Horn told me on this week’s episode of the LiberatED podcast. “What we observed over time was that you needed some sort of technology enabler that allowed you to carry the original value proposition around convenience, affordability, and accessibility and allowed you to improve without just replicating all of the cost features of the incumbent.”

Horn should know. He co-founded the Clayton Christensen Institute with Clayton Christensen, who coined the term “disruptive innovation” back in the 1990s. Since then, Horn has studied the role of disruptive innovation in education and has written several books on the topic, including his newly-released book, From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child.

In our podcast conversation this week, Horn and I focused on the ways in which disruptive innovation is reshaping how many children learn, as well as accelerating the growth of alternative learning models.

For instance, while homeschooling began its modern revival a half-century ago, and microschools, or small, multi-age learning environments, have existed for decades—including some of the ones I highlighted in my Unschooled book—it wasn’t until the advent of new technologies that homeschooling and microschooling became a mainstream option for millions of families.

Virtual schools and platforms such as Sora SchoolsMy Tech HighASU Prep Digital, and Socratic Experience, enable students, many of whom may be registered as homeschoolers, to learn from anywhere and have access to a more personalized curriculum. Similarly, Khan Academy, Coursera, Udemy, and Outschool give students around the world access to content and curriculum experts to make it easier to choose an alternative learning path, or supplement a conventional one.

Fast-growing microschool networks such as Prenda and KaiPod are combining educational technology with small, in-person learning pods to enable many more families to have access to a personalized, flexible microschool experience. KaiPod has recently teamed up with virtual providers such as Sora Schools and Socratic Experience to offer pods tailored to families choosing a specific curriculum.

“Leveraging technology allows you to stay connected to the curriculum, learn from anywhere, learn from the best experts anywhere,” said Horn. “And then surround the child with a variety of novel supports that are customized to what that child needs, what the family needs, and unleashes all sorts of things.”

Blending new technologies with the personalization and flexibility of microschooling and homeschooling will continue to disrupt the education sector and turn alternative learning models into mainstream options for many more families.


Kerry McDonald

Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and host of the weekly LiberatED podcast. She is also the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children. You can sign up for her weekly newsletter on parenting and education here.

​​Listen to the weekly LiberatED Podcast on AppleSpotifyGoogle, and Stitcher, or watch it on YouTube, and sign up for Kerry’s weekly LiberatED email newsletter to stay up-to-date on educational news and trends from a free-market perspective.

EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

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