For these K–12 programs, disruptive potential hinges on an critical decision

This school year saw a burst of new online learning options enter the K–12 education scene. I’m not referring to the  temporary remote and hybrid solutions brick-and-mortar schools have employed during the pandemic, but the related and separate trend of school districts setting up new online learning programs, such as full-time virtual schools and district-supported learning pods. Many of these new programs break from some of the core tenants of K–12 instruction and make notable strides toward student-centered learning—grouping students by need or neighborhood rather than by age, and enabling them to learn through a modality and pace that works best for them rather than through whole-group, single-paced instruction. If forward thinking administrators create the right conditions, these programs could even prove disruptive to conventional K–12 education within this decade.

But the improvement trajectories these programs follow in the coming years, and thus their potential to scale as disruptions to the mainstream, hinge on an important decision: who should  they innovate to serve? This question matters because whose problems they aim to solve will have a profound impact on the types of innovations they pursue, the capabilities and cost structures they develop, and their potential to scale more broadly within the K–12 education landscape.

A tale of two consumers

The Theory of Disruptive Innovation identifies two categories of people that can give Disruptive Innovations their initial foothold: 1) least-demanding consumers and 2) nonconsumers.

Least-demanding consumers are people who have access to mainstream options, but who feel overserved by those options. As such, they are willing, if given a choice, to trade off core functionality to get other benefits such as affordability, convenience, or customizability.

For example, in the 1960s many households stopped shopping at department stores in favor of discount retailers such as WalMart and Kmart. Although discount stores lacked the level of customer service found in department stores, their nationally-branded, well-known products  could practically sell themselves. Thus, less-demanding consumers were willing to give up better customer service in order to get lower prices.

In education, K–12’s least-demanding consumers are students and families who are willing to give up some aspects of a conventional K–12 school experience in order to gain greater flexibility or customizability. For example, some students trade  a few periods of in-person learning to customize their education with online courses not offered at their local schools. Yet other students give up the conventional school experience entirely and enroll in public virtual schools so they can pursue professional acting, Olympic training, or family travel.

To be clear, least-demanding students and families are not people who undervalue education. In fact, they may have extremely high expectations for learning experiences and educational credentials. They just don’t have high demand for all the features and services conventional schools offer—such as daily schedules, custodial care, guidance counselors, school lunches, or live instruction from teachers—because they can rely on their own resources to get what they need on these fronts. Above all, they want flexibility and optionality, and they are willing to forego structures, supports, and wrap-around services to get what they want.

In contrast, nonconsumers are people for whom mainstream solutions are out of reach. They lack access to mainstream solutions because they can’t afford them, don’t have the skills required to use them, live and work in contexts where they aren’t available, or have unique needs that mainstream solutions can’t adequately address. 

To illustrate, consider ultrasound imaging. When ultrasound technology first became available in  the 1990s, the benefits of ultrasound imaging were initially out of reach in low-income countries. A large, high-performance machine cost upwards of $100,000 and therefore was just too expensive for small hospitals and rural clinics. Then in the early 2000s, GE began selling a new type of compact ultrasound machine that ran off a regular laptop and cost only $15,000. These machines quickly reached new parts of the world and improved the quality of healthcare for vast populations of nonconsumers.

In K–12 education, nonconsumers are a relatively small segment of the school-age population. Because education in the US is both free and compulsory, the only real nonconsumers are students on the margins who dropout from school because challenges in their life circumstances drive them out of the public schooling system. These circumstances might include foster care, family upheaval, homelessness, learning disabilities, repeated academic failure, trauma from bullying at school, or debilitating medical issues. Unfortunately, the pandemic has likely ballooned the number of students in these circumstances.

Diverging pathways: Why selecting the right foothold is key

In other sectors, serving nonconsumers and least-demanding consumers often goes hand-in-hand because the selling point for both groups is often lower prices. 

In education, however, the instructional models that best serve nonconsumers and least-demanding consumers aren’t so congruent. Low prices are not what meet the needs and desires of either of these groups; instead, what K–12’s nonconsumers and least-demanding consumers both value is flexibility and customizability. But the two groups diverge markedly with respect to the types of customizability they want and the supports they need to manage their options.

Least-demanding consumers willingly forego things like in-person learning environments, childcare, on-hand guidance from credentialed teachers, and the social and community aspects of school because they are largely self-sufficient in providing or substituting for these features. 

In contrast, nonconsumers are K–12 education’s most demanding consumers. Relative to their peers, these students and their families have the highest need for things like advisory periods, guidance counselors, special education teachers, multi-tiered systems of support, and wrap-around services. But many lack access to the resources they need, and therefore end up slipping through the cracks. Their lives just don’t conform well to all-day in-person attendance, classroom-based instruction, rigid semester calendars, and grading systems that move students along without ensuring that they master essential content and skills. To reach academic success, they need not only more flexible instructional models, but more non-academic support.

These differences have major implications for the types of innovations that new online learning programs develop. For example, a program like My Tech High that primarily serves least-demanding consumers prioritizes expanding its catalog of courses and learning experience. In contrast, a program like Map Academy that was created to serve nonconsumers prioritizes building out more robust wrap-around services.

At the same time, there are many virtual schools that attempt to serve both types of consumers and end up not meeting the needs and wants of either. On one hand, their commitment to curricular quality means that their course catalogs do not expand to the range of options least-demanding consumers would like to see. Meanwhile, their focus on the flexibility of virtual learning means they don’t develop the face-to-face supports nonconsumers need.

In sum, new online learning programs can end up building one-size-fits-none models if they try to serve both nonconsumers and least-demanding consumers. Education leaders, make sure you choose wisely, and then get laser focused on how you’re going to meet the needs of those you aim to serve.

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