Disruptive innovation is when a particular business or entity brings about change in the consumer environment by introducing a new product that is simpler or more affordable. Even though the product or service may not be as good, Christensen, Horn & Johnson (2011) explains that it, “benefits people who had been unable to consume the back plane product” (p. 47). The back plane product or service is often the more expensive or high end choice. A disruption such as this usually occurs because a need exists in the marketplace of which non-consumers, those that are unlikely to opt for the alternative, are unaware. The more affordable or simpler option presented by the disruption creates a new level of consumption that creates a change in the market environment.
On the other hand, sustaining innovation describes a condition in which businesses maintain the level of quality and meet demand by making improvements to a product or service that already exists. Christensen & Raynor (2003) explain that, “some sustaining innovations are the incremental year-by-year improvements that all good companies grind out” and are those that “they can sell for higher profit margins to their best customers” (p. 34). Based on this description, the greatest difference is that disruptive innovation creates a change in the status quo of sustaining innovation by providing a product that did not formerly exist for a sector of the market that did not formerly consume goods for a given commodity.
Historically, one can observe the effects of disruptive innovation through the introduction of products such as the pocket calculator. The invention of the pocket calculator, although seen as poorer in quality when compared to a desktop calculator or adding machine, was portable and less expensive. As a result, consumers who could not afford a larger adding machine could buy a pocket calculator for their computing needs. The calculator later evolved from a simple disruption in the marketplace to eventually become a prime example of sustaining innovation as, over time, companies such as Texas Instruments began improving on the original design. Ultimately, they created higher end versions of the pocket calculator that would serve greater needs than most consumers needed, and as a result drove the prices up for the product. The same can be said for a more recent development in technology. The iPad represented a similar disruption in the marketplace, as Apple worked to provide an alternative to the Mac laptop. The iPad created a niche in the marketplace that hadn’t existed prior to its invention and provided a cheaper and portable option for consumers who likely would not purchase a laptop. Apple has spent the past year on the work of sustaining that success by improving the product so it can compete with copycat tablets.
I see disruptive innovation as a force of change in my own field of education as new products and methods arise to fulfill the needs of individual learners. Specifically, the use of computers in schools has created a disruption that can evolve education from a teacher-centered profession to a student-centered profession. For years, teachers have led instruction and provided a one size fits all view of learning. Christensen, Horn & Johnson (2011) refer to this as monolithic content delivery and estimate, “that at least 80 percent of the typical teacher’s time is now spent in monolithic activity” (p. 111). As a result, less time is left to individualized attention. Computers have been in the classroom for years, but now they can be used as a force for change as they transition from being an appliance in the room to being a tool for instruction. In the past, teachers would present material at a pace that expected all students were expected to follow and would test and move on whether mastery had been met or not. Teachers now have the opportunity to use computers and internet access to provide individualized learning through online learning systems. Christensen, Horn & Johnson (2011) point out that, “when students learn through student-centric online technology, testing doesn’t have to be postponed until the end of an instructional module” and teachers “can verify mastery continually to create tight, closed feedback loops” (p. 111). To put it more simply, computers can be used to assist students in learning at their own pace and by aiding them in achieving mastery of a concept before moving on. This is in stark contrast to the lecture, drill, and test mode that leaves some students behind because they don’t understand content before moving on.
I have recently taken a new position in my school district as virtual school director. I see the use of online learning as an opportunity to service a group of what one might consider non-consumers in our district. That group consists of home school, credit recovery, and first time credit students. To serve those non-consumers, we are prepared to offer a full virtual high school alternative beginning August 1st. For students that fall into one of these categories and may be, for one reason or another, unable to enroll in a traditional face to face class or need to repeat a class that is nearing capacity, we will be able to provide classes to them online. Through the online curriculum, we will be able to provide a benefit to these students by addressing their specific learning styles through diversified and specialized content and by providing one-on-one tutoring assistance. As a result, our hope is that students will be more engaged and show greater interest in content. This is a drastic change to our school environment, but one we hope will provide alternatives that will serve as a safety net to at risk students who might otherwise drop out due to failure. As well, we will likely recapture home schooled students as this alternative was formerly unavailable to them.
As with any change in the landscape of the school system, I anticipate that there will be opposition from the faculty. Some teachers have already voiced the opinion that an online classroom cannot be as rigorous as a face to face class. Others have expressed concerns that substituting traditional classes with online curricula may take away jobs. My response to this is that the online environment may bring about change, but it will also create opportunities for both teachers and students. Many of the methods that teachers complain they have difficulty employing in the classroom can be afforded by the design and structure of an online curriculum. As a result, if teachers do not use the online program in place of their traditional course, then they will be able to provide supplemental activities from the online curriculum that can reinforce the learning that takes place in their regular lesson plans. As well, students will be able to take courses not traditionally offered in their schools due to budget concerns or dwindling faculty size; a problem we are currently facing. Overall, I believe that once teachers are able to embrace this change, it will be beneficial to everyone. Christensen, Horn & Johnson (2011) point out that in several examples where online learning has taken place across the country, “teachers are more like coaches and lecture rarely. They help, guide, and evaluate” (p. 220). The time afforded to teachers to take on the role of facilitator will surely benefit the student. Additionally, the change in the teacher’s role will likely grow as an attractive alternative to ineffective teaching styles. To that end, I hope that this new offering in our school system will be a catalyst for change as all teachers begin to see alternatives to teacher-centered classrooms.
Christensen, C.M. & Raynor, M.E. (2003). The innovator’s solution: Creating and
sustaining successful growth. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing
Christensen, C.M., Horn, M.B., & Johnson, C.W. (2011). Disrupting class: How
innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw Hill.