Technology disruptions in education

The idea of disruptive innovations in education ought to be a loud wake-up call to school leaders. Christensen, Horn, and Johnson (2001) predict that by the year 2019, half of all high school courses will be delivered in an online format. This prediction is based on the idea that technological improvements and economic advantages will make this the preferred method of learning for students. This type of education is more learner-centered as the pace and schedule of instruction and learning is more flexible than sitting in a classroom at specific times and for a prescribed duration of time. Not only is the schedule more accommodating, students (and their families) will have more choice about the content they learn, who (person or service) teaches the content, how the content is taught, and also be allowed different pathways for learning and displaying what they have learned.

McLeod (2009) states that the system of public education may no longer be the default educational choice for students and their parents. School districts and private school systems will no longer have the market cornered on education. Mandated attendance at a geographically local school (public or private) can change within just one state legislative session, especially if there are other education options that are proven to be just as effective as the traditional neighborhood school model. Parents will likely have more choices about how to educate their children. That service could be provided from a location just around the corner, or broadcast from a different continent or be a blend of sources from a variety of educators around the whole world. The education for a student will have more to do with what they need to know and want to know, and less to do with the neighborhood in which they live.

These disruptions have started and will continue to grow with the “nonconsumers” in our current system (Christensen et al., 2011). These are students who are homeschooled, those who attend small rural schools with few course options, or even those kids who may be physically present in a classroom but are not mentally engaged. The current educational system is not working for them at all, so nearly any alternative is an improvement from their current experience. Disruptive technologies in the forms of computer-based and internet-based learning are already becoming their alternative to traditional schooling.

So what does this mean for school leaders? The first thing that comes to my mind is whether or not there will even be enough students physically present in our schools to justify the current staffing patterns we have. The world is changing, expectations and needs of our students are changing, so we better start changing our schools and our selves to meet these needs.

What will school leaders need to do? First we need to really understand how to use technology in a learner-centered manner. The instructional practice of one-size-fits-most teaching can’t be used anymore. We need to equip our teaching staff to use technology as an effective teaching tool, and not just as a supplement to traditional methods of instruction. Teachers need to use tech to meet the individual needs, interests, and learning styles of our students.

School leaders also need to have a deep and practical knowledge of how students can use technology as a learning tool. Learning should not be a passive activity, and technology affords many opportunities for students to take control of what they learn and how they demonstrate what they know. Technology enables students to be creative, produce unique content, and communicate with a wide and varied audience. What students are able to demonstrate with technology could virtually be limitless. School leaders need to procure these tools and get them into the hands of students.

Another important factor to consider in this world of increasing educational opportunities is how to best display and share what our educational organizations are able to provide for students. School leaders need to be great communicators and marketers when more options are available to students and families. Leaders need to understand their own strengths as an education provider, and then connect with those students whose needs they can meet. In a world full of options, leaders also need to consider the customer service they provide once they have started working with a student. Learning goals should be used to provide what students need, and educators should then carefully assess if those goals are being met.

School leaders also need to strengthen and utilize their collaborative skills to meet the needs of their stakeholders. Even if geographic location remains an important factor for students and their parents in choosing a school, school leaders will still need to be able to find resources for their students and staff. The expertise of the world is likely just a few clicks and swipes away, so leaders need to find ways to get this expertise to their students.

So how do we make all of this happen? Is it even possible to change our system from within our organizations? This is a daunting question for me, and even Christensen (2011) expresses this dilemma by stating, “Asking public schools to negotiate these disruptions from within their mainstream organizations is tantamount to giving them a demonstrably impossible task” (pg. 61). Systems and organizations are not designed to reinvent and disrupt themselves.

My prediction is that the first dominos of disruption will fall (have already fallen?) through political and legislative action. Mandatory attendance laws will change, parents will have more choices for school attendance, and more flexibility will be allowed for how public school funding resources are used. Whether or not the results of all of these changes happen by the year 2019, we should be preparing right now for the best interests of our students.


Christensen, C., Horn, M, Johnson, C. (2011). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovations will change the way the world learns. McGraw-Hill.

McLeod, S. (Presenter). (2009). Effective leadership in an era of disruptive innovation [Online presentation]. Retrieved from

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