A weekend interview with Michael B. Horn of the Innosight Institute
Online education, once just a pesky idea for public schools, has taken off as a major alternative form of schooling for K-12 students. Florida has taken the lead nationally in this change, and Michael B. Horn of the Innosight Institute think tank has taken note. Horn, who looks for "disruptive innovations" to solve problems with the status quo, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the growing presence of virtual schooling and what it means for the future of education.
Why do you think so many people will be in virtual education in such a short period of time?
There are a few things driving it. First, it presents an opportunity to solve the prisoners of time report, if you will. Right now we have a system where the time is fixed and so the learning is variable from student to student. And online learning, virtual learning, allows us to change that equation and make time variable so the learning can be constant, and really start to break down some of the factory model assumptions that have really governed our schools for the past 100-plus years.
I think also with the crunch in terms of budgets and so forth that are coming around ... it's not going to go away any time soon. Online learning is going to have to play a role for districts to do more with less. We are certainly asking more of our schools, but they're going to have fewer resources.
It sounds like something where teachers have to do more also. It sounds like a much harder thing for a teacher to teach a virtual class than a classroom class.
You know, I think one of the big things we're going to see online education improve over the next couple of years ... will be that it will be less of a distance phenomenon over time, and it's going to become more sort of a bricks and clicks model, if you will, where you have a physical teacher in a room or an environment with the student, but their job will be very different. Rather than lecturing and preparing for those, sort of the one size fits all disciplinarian tasks that a teacher has to do right now, the teacher will be much more working with students one on one, mentoring, playing the role of motivator. So I think it will be a big shift. Initially it will be more challenging. But I think over time it will be much more rewarding, and allow for very different creative models of teaching to start springing up that should allow them to get better results and have closer connections with kids than they can under the current system.
Do you think that this will work for every kind of student, though?
Great question. Yeah. The idea more is, from my perspective of wanting to see this grow, is we don't want to say that every student will learn well online. What we do want is a system to grow that is student-centric. So whatever your preferred way of learning is, we can deliver it. What we really want is a flexible system to rise up. It's not whether it is online or not that is important. It is, Are we meeting your individual needs, you individual passions and sparking those passions? I think online will be a big part of it, but I don't think it will be the only part. I do however think it could be a platform for individualizing even when a lot of the activities are offline. ...
Florida has been huge on this idea. ... Is that the model you are looking at?
Yeah. I think Florida is well ahead of the curve on this one. And not only that. One of the key things you pointed out is that online learning does not work well for everyone. ... But one thing Florida Virtual School has been working on is making the work more engaging for different types of learners. So one thing they just introduced Conspiracy Code, which is a video game based history course. That's not going to be for everyone, either. But it's going to capture another segment of people who are really motivated to learn through this medium. So I think Florida is really pioneering a lot of things in this. And the fact that you've seen a lot of growth in this has been a harbinger that this is going to sweep across the country. I think the model will look different in different places. But as a trend line, Florida is going to be a bellwether for this, and has been.
How do you find that Florida got there? Is this just a fluke?
There were some really enlightened moves at the outset, starting with the Break the Mold grants that the Florida Department of Education gave out in the late 1990s to spark new models of schooling and education. Of course, one of them spawned a partnership between two school districts in Florida, Orange and Alachua. ... This started to spawn the Florida Virtual School. That first grant they got was $200,000. I think there was great wisdom in it being a small amount of money just to sort of dabble at first and not to say this is the plan of all plans to redo our system. ...
As it started to grow and started to have success, there was good political leadership to get behind it and see what was happening and foster an environment where some really smart policies were put in place. Two in particular. One was creating Florida Virtual School as the equivalent of a school district, one that was autonomous to do what it had to do to succeed for students. And the second was switching to a self-sustaining funding model where they could get money for serving students rather than being on a year-to-year allocation cycle from the legislators, but tying that to performance rather than seat time and saying you only get the money if the student successfully completes the course. I think that is going to prove to be one of the greatest breakthroughs. ...
Isn't that what they're talking about now as a general education reform?
Yeah. There's a lot of talk now about getting the seat time, getting rid of the Carnegie units and moving toward the competency based models, where pay is linked to success. I think what we're going to see in practicality is the existing dominant school system, that's going to be tough for a lot of it to implement, because all of its processes are built around this fixed time. So I think that would be a wrenching change and maybe something we wouldn't want to do right away on the mainstream school system, but rather have these pockets like Florida Virtual School and learn lessons about what does and doesn't work, because the reality is that we still don't know a lot about what mastery always looks like and how to measure it and understand it.
I wonder, are there other kinds of things that are coming along that you see as having the potential for a similar impact?
They all tend to revolve around online learning in different forms. ... One is, the online learning in alternative programs, dropout recovery programs, where they set up in shopping malls or sites outside of schools. ... There's a group in Florida that's starting to come up called Mavericks in Education. I think those types of programs are going to give us much better clues as to how much some of this will survive. Because just assuming everyone can do this from a distance is unrealistic in my mind. We're going to need locations for people to go, locations for them to socialize, mentors and in-person people. I think that's going to be a huge movement where we'll see a lot of growth in the next couple of years, and it will teach us a lot.
The second one I would cite is, I think the learning management market has been historically dominated by companies like Blackboard. I think you're going to see a next-generation learning management system come up that is going to disrupt the industry, where it will break up the idea of content being from one provider as well and go more to a user network open-source model of content to match the standards. So students can pull down what works for them and find the right material to help them master the different concepts they need to master. Teachers obviously will play an integral role in that. ...
You use the term "disrupt" in a very positive way. Most people don't think of it that way. Why do you use it that way?
That's a great question. In retrospect, calling it a disruptive innovation was probably a horrible idea, because, like you just said, it has a lot of other connotations in the English language, many not good. And it also tends to imply sort of a breakthrough improvement or innovation. And we don't mean it that way at all. We mean something that's often not as good as the existing system but brings along new dimensions of performance around affordability, simplicity, customizability, convenience, and transforms a market .. to allow it to serve many more people. So there is a very positive force. And it's a very specific definition and phenomenon that we've observed. Every sector that we've seen is transformed by this disruptive process. ...
In terms of education, it's important because why?
I think it's an opportunity to really transform the system into a much more student-centric one. Our historical reform lens has been to bash the system head-on. Predictably, the system has fought back to preserve itself. The way you change is by going where the system doesn't want to be with this new value proposition that can be much more flexible to meet student needs.