Through Online Learning Innovate to Educate: Maximizing Students’ Potential

Just as it is intuitive to us that we learn differently from each other, it is also intuitive that because of this, each of us needs a different, customized learning approach to maximize our potential.

Yet schools—Jewish day schools, secular schools, and independent schools—are typically structured to offer far more standardization than customization in the learning opportunities for students. 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 (even if it is a prerequisite for learning what is next). On the other hand, if some students are able to master a class in just a few weeks, they remain in the class for the whole semester. And when a teacher teaches long division in the manner that corresponds to how she best learned and understood it, it does not matter whether a student grasps it and grows bored with the repeated explanations or sinks deeper into bewilderment, unable to grasp the logic; the student sits in the class for the duration. In this model, both the bored and the bewildered see their motivation for achievement shredded by the system.

Why is this? It’s not that teachers, administrators, and other school officials do not appreciate the need for customization. They do. It’s the system in which they work, however, that constrains their ability to customize.

To see why, picture Microsoft Windows. It, like many schools, is highly interdependent—you can’t build or change one component unless you build or change the others because each component affects the way the others function. Changing just a few lines of Microsoft Windows’s code would necessitate rewriting thousands of other lines. It would therefore cost millions of dollars to custom-configure Windows to meet your needs. The economics of interdependence mandate standardization.

Contrast this with a modular product or service architecture. Here, people can change one piece without redesigning the others. This, in turn, allows for affordable customization. Linux is a great illustration of this. Once Unix technology had matured sufficiently, an open-source operating system such as Linux became feasible. Linux’s architecture is modular and therefore can be customized—different people can use different kernels of the code in order to create the operating system that best fits their needs.

Schools are laced with interdependencies. For example, a student can’t study one concept in ninth grade unless he or she had covered another one in seventh grade. Even the physical architecture of schools prevents teachers from offering their students different learning opportunities. This prevents simple, affordable customization. Instead, the economics compel standardization in the way schools teach and test. For evidence, simply look at how much it costs to tailor an education for special-needs students.

If the goal is to educate every student to their highest potential and provide a secular and Jewish education that is meaningful, rich, and motivating, Jewish day schools need to move away from this monolithic classroom model and, instead, move toward a student-centric model with a modular design that enables mass customization.

Online learning is emerging as a disruptive innovation across the spectrum of education, and it represents 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. Students can take different paths through the learning material and can proceed at different paces as they move on to the next concept only once they have mastered the current one.

But if this is the case, how can we explain the minimal impact computers have had in the classroom? Despite spending enormous amounts of money equipping schools with computers and technology over the last two decades, countless studies and most routine observations reveal that they have not transformed schools nor has their use boosted learning as measured by test scores.

That schools have gotten so little back from their investment comes as no surprise. Schools have done what virtually every organization does when implementing a potentially disruptive innovation. An organization’s natural instinct is to cram the innovation into its existing operating model to sustain what it already does. But if transformation is truly the goal, employing the innovation in this manner won’t work.

The way to implement an innovation so that it will transform an organization is to implement it disruptively—not by using it to compete against the existing paradigm and serve existing users, but to target those not being served—people we call non-consumers. That way, all the new approach has to do is be better than the alternative—which is nothing at all.

Disruptive innovations transform sectors characterized by expensive, complicated, and inaccessible products and services into ones where simplicity, affordability, and accessibility reign. At the outset, they tend to be not as good as the existing products and services as judged by the historical measures of performance. But little by little, disruptions predictably improve and at some point become good enough to handle more complicated problems—and then—armed with their new value proposition around simplicity, affordability, and accessibility—they take over and supplant the old way of doing things. It happens in all sectors—from computing, where personal computers transformed a sector by disrupting mainframe and minicomputers, to postsecondary education, where community colleges and now online universities progressively make education more convenient and affordable.

For online learning to bring about a disruptive transformation in Jewish education, it must be implemented where the alternative is no class at all, or where students and their families have no access to a Jewish Day School but would jump at the opportunity to attend one.

In secular schools, there are many areas of non-consumption where this is already taking place. For example, online learning is gaining traction in the advanced courses that many schools are unable to offer; in small, rural, and urban schools that are unable to offer breadth; in remedial courses for students who must retake courses in order to graduate; and with home-schooled students and those who can’t keep up with the regular schedule of courses. Online enrollments have soared in recent years from 45,000 in 2000 to 1 million in 2007. Most estimates report that enrollments are now around 2 million.

Although in its infancy, online learning possesses certain technological and economic advantages over the traditional school model that should allow it to grow and improve rapidly. Not only does it provide accessibility for students who otherwise would not be able to take a course, but it also enables one to scale quality with far greater ease so that all students can have access to high quality offerings no matter where they live. And as it scales and improves, its economic costs should fall. In the United States, on average, it already costs less to educate a student online than it does in the current monolithic model. Furthermore, over time, online learning can become more engaging and individualized to reach different types of learners as software developers take full advantage of the medium to customize it by layering in different learning paths for different students.

We have already seen improvements. The original online learning courses tended to be mostly of the distance learning variety. Increasingly, however, students are taking online courses in hybrid, brick-and-mortar environments where they have access to a live adult. The content is also becoming much more engaging, as places like the Florida Virtual School have introduced video game-based history courses and the like. Even though online learning is still young, the evidence at this point is that online learning produces better results than does learning in traditional face-to-face classrooms. And because time can be variable with online learning, we have the ability to pay only when a student successfully masters a course.

There are exciting possibilities on the horizon for education. Employing a disruptive approach that is mindful of children’s differences presents a promising path toward motivating students to maximize their human potential. And Jewish day schools can seize it so that they can deliver a better and more affordable education.

Clayton M. Christensen is the professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School and is coauthor of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He can be reached at

Michael B. Horn is the executive director of education at Innosight Institute and is coauthor of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He can be reached at

Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Spring 2010