Michigan’s national leadership in providing virtual learning opportunities for public school students is an underappreciated success story. The statewide increase in virtual learning activity — whether through MVS, single-district virtual programs, multi-district virtual programs or virtual charter schools — suggests that virtual learning can help meet the state’s educational needs. And there are reasons to believe that virtual learning is, in general, providing a viable alternative to the longstanding conventional classroom model of face-to-face instruction. The U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis and the Cavanaugh research cited earlier suggest that virtual learning can produce results at least equal to, and perhaps greater than, those achieved in traditional classrooms. While ongoing studies are certainly called for, the positive results for virtual learning in higher education also suggest that K-12 schools may benefit, particularly with older students.

Of course, given the complex problems confronting K-12 public schools, it’s unlikely that virtual learning will prove to be a “silver bullet.” But if the experience with virtual learning to date holds true, it could accomplish two goals at once: boosting student achievement on average and reducing school operating costs over time. This is the potential of virtual learning, and one reason why Michigan policymakers should consider ways to expand it in this state.

Policymakers should also remember that when more educational choices have been made available to Michigan students, Michigan’s families have seized on them. In the 1990s, the state enabled the existence of charter schools and made it easier for parents to enroll their children in schools outside the district they lived in. These options have been valued and demanded by parents: The number of students enrolled in a public school of their own choosing increased from 108,000 to 183,000 — 69 percent — from 2002 to 2008.[74]

And as noted earlier, course enrollments at MVS and GenNET have grown quickly in recent years. Similarly, school districts have begun capitalizing on the state superintendent of public instruction’s seat-time waivers and have expanded online learning opportunities in their districts.

True, some of this increase may have been due to the state requirement that students perform online work in order to graduate, but it seems unlikely that this mandate explains all of the growth. Students are not actually required to take an online course to graduate, since a shorter, 20-hour online “learning experience” — not an actual course — is sufficient.[75] Moreover, no student graduating from high school in Michigan has needed to meet this requirement so far; the first class of students subject to this mandate is the class of 2011.[76]

Policymakers should also note that virtual learning is no ordinary “choice”; it has the ability to transcend geographical and teacher-time constraints in ways that building new brick-and-mortar schools cannot. Instead of being limited to the list of courses a local brick-and-mortar school can furnish, students can access thousands of different courses. Instead of being limited to the quality of instruction available from local teachers, students can learn from the best instructors in the country. Instead of being forced to learn at the average pace of 17 students in a classroom, students can learn at their own unique pace, no matter the course, no matter the lesson.

In fact, there may be something pathbreaking in the rise of single- and multi-district virtual learning programs serving dropouts, homeschoolers, homebound students, expelled students and other “fringe” students who might not otherwise use public schools. The emergence of these programs resembles a technologically driven market phenomenon identified by Clayton Christiansen of Harvard Business School. In studying business history, Christiansen has found that the technological breakthroughs that transform an entire market do not just burst onto the scene and starting gaining market share; rather, they begin with a small market of “nonconsumers” — i.e., people who are not currently buying the dominant marketplace products that will eventually be made obsolete by the new innovation.[77] The marketing of inexpensive transistor radios to teenagers in 1955, for instance, was the obscure beginning of the eventually overwhelming transistor revolution in radio and TV products.[*]

Christiansen now suggests that virtual learning is a similarly “disruptive innovation” that can revolutionize how schools operate.[78] As single- and multi-district virtual programs target nonconsumer students — those, in other words, who are not being served by the dominant brick-and-mortar schooling — they may be following the market-transforming route of the transistor.[†] In Christiansen’s view, such programs, targeted at small and often marginalized segments of the school-age population, will be the vanguard of a virtual learning revolution that will ultimately transform public education.

Michigan policymakers have numerous reasons to keep increasing virtual learning opportunities for Michigan students and to ensure we do not drop behind the leading virtual learning states. The recommendations that follow will assist state policymakers in that goal.

[*] Clayton Christiansen and Michael B. Horn, “How Do We Transform Our Schools” (Education Next, 2008), 14-15, http://educationnext.org/how-do-we-transform-our-schools/ (accessed April 5, 2010). Christiansen and Horn explain that initially, major market players, such as the Radio Corporation of America, failed to make transistor technology profitable. The companies’ chief mistake was trying to make the transistor work for the big radios and products they already made, instead of using it to sell new products to a different group of consumers.

Sony, on the other hand, took the approach of creating a brand-new battery-powered handheld radio and marketing it to teenagers — a group of consumers the established companies like RCA had all but ignored. Through incremental improvement, the transistor radio became a smashing success, and Sony eventually beat RCA at is own game, replacing vacuum tubes with transistors in large radios and televisions.

[†] The same may be true of MVS and the virtual charter schools, which have also been serving the needs of nonconsumer students, such as homeschoolers.

[74] Andrew Saultz and Kathryn Summers, “Explaining School Choice” (Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, 2009), 4, goo.gl/IRZEh (accessed Jan. 11, 2011).

[75] “Michigan Merit Curriculum Guidelines: Online Experience” (Michigan Department of Education), 8, http://www.michigan.gov/documents/ mde/Online10.06_final_175750_7.pdf (accessed Jan. 17, 2011).

[76] MCL § 1278a(1).

[77] Clayton Christiansen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business (New York: Harper Books, 2003).

[78] Clayton Christiansen, Curtis Johnson, and Michael B. Horn, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008).