(Editor’s Note: Michael Horn will speak to the Foundation’s Leadership Breakfast on Thursday, June 6. Click here to learn more and register.)
By Clayton Christensen, Heather Staker and Michael Horn
The Clayton Christensen Institute, formerly Innosight Institute, has published three papers describing the rise of K−12 blended learning—that is, formal education programs that combine online learning and brick-and-mortar schools. This fourth paper is the first to analyze blended learning through the lens of disruptive innovation theory to help people anticipate and plan for the likely effects of blended learning on the classrooms of today and schools of tomorrow. The paper includes the following sections:
Introduction to sustaining and disruptive innovation
There are two basic types of innovation—sustaining and disruptive—that follow different trajectories and lead to different results. Sustaining innovations help leading, or incumbent, organizations make better products or services that can often be sold for better profits to their best customers. They serve existing customers according to the original definition of performance— that is, according to the way the market has historically defined what’s good. A common misreading of the theory of disruptive innovation is that disruptive innovations are good and sustaining innovations are bad. This is false. Sustaining innovations are vital to a healthy and robust sector, as organizations strive to make better products or deliver better services to their best customers.
Disruptive innovations, in contrast, do not try to bring better products to existing customers in established markets. Instead, they offer a new definition of what’s good—typically they are simpler, more convenient, and less expensive products that appeal to new or less demanding customers. Over time, they improve enough to intersect with the needs of more demanding customers, thereby tranforming a sector. Examples in the paper from several industries demonstrate the classic patterns of both types of innovation.
Theory of hybrids
Often industries experience a hybrid stage when they are in the middle of a disruptive transformation. A hybrid is a combination of the new, disruptive technology with the old technology and represents a sustaining innovation relative to the old technology. For example, the automobile industry has developed several hybrid cars along its way to transitioning from gasoline-fueled engines to engines with alternative power sources. The leading companies want the virtues of both, so they have developed a sustaining innovation—hybrid cars that use both gasoline and electricity. Other industries—including earth excavators, steamships, photography, retail, and banking—have experienced a hybrid stage on their way to realizing the pure disruption. Industries create hybrids for predictable reasons, including because the business case for the purely disruptive technology is not compelling at first to industry leaders, whereas implementing a hybrid as a sustaining innovation allows incumbents to satisfy their best customers.
How to spot a hybrid
Hybrid innovations follow a distinct pattern. These are four characteristics of a hybrid:
- It includes both the old and new technology, whereas a pure disruption does not offer the old technology in its full form.
- It targets existing customers, rather than nonconsumers—that is, those whose alternative to using the new technology is nothing at all.
- It tries to do the job of the preexisting technology. As a result, the performance hurdle required to delight the existing customers is quite high because the hybrid must do the job at least as well as the incumbent product on its own, as judged by the original definition of performance. In contrast, companies that succeed at disruptive innovations generally take the capabilities of the new technology as a given and look for markets that will accept the new definition of what’s good.
- It tends to be less “foolproof ” than a disruptive innovation. It does not significantly reduce the level of wealth and/or expertise needed to purchase and operate it.
Importantly, where there is no non-consumption in a market, a hybrid solution is the only viable option for a new technology that under-performs the old based on the original definition of performance. That means that in markets with full consumption, hybrid innovations tend to dominate instead of pure disruptions.
Hybrid models of blended learning
In many schools, blended learning is emerging as a hybrid innovation that is a sustaining innovation relative to the traditional classroom. This hybrid form is an attempt to deliver “the best of both worlds”—that is, the advantages of online learning combined with all the benefits of the traditional classroom. In contrast, other models of blended learning appear disruptive relative to the traditional classroom. They do not include the traditional classroom in its full form; they often get their start among nonconsumers; they offer benefits that accord to a new definition of what’s good; and they tend to be more foolproof to purchase and operate.
In terms of the emerging blended-learning taxonomy, the Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, and Flipped Classroom models are following the pattern of sustaining hybrid innovations. They incorporate the main features of both the traditional classroom and online learning. The Flex, A La Carte,* Enriched Virtual, and Individual Rotation models, in contrast, are developing more disruptively relative to the traditional system.
(Click here to continue reading this summary on the Christensen Institute website.)