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.
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.
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
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. 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.
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. 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.[*]
suggests that virtual learning is a similarly “disruptive innovation” that can
revolutionize how schools operate.
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
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.
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
 Andrew Saultz and Kathryn Summers, “Explaining School
Choice” (Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, 2009), 4, goo.gl/IRZEh
(accessed Jan. 11, 2011).
 “Michigan Merit Curriculum Guidelines: Online Experience”
(Michigan Department of Education), 8, https://www.michigan.gov/documents/ mde/Online10.06_final_175750_7.pdf
(accessed Jan. 17, 2011).
 MCL § 1278a(1).
 Clayton Christiansen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The
Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business (New
York: Harper Books, 2003).
 Clayton Christiansen, Curtis Johnson, and Michael B.
Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008).