Innosight’s Michael Horn on How ‘Blended Learning’ and Technology Can Bridge the Education Gap

Michael Horn sees the Internet providing access to a range of products and services that will help improve the way people can learn. While adult education is where on-line learning initially got its start, Horn predicts that half of high school courses in the U.S. will be taken online in less than a decade. Horn co-wrote the bestselling book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns with Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen. He and Christensen later co-founded The Innosight Institute, a non-for profit think tank devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in the social sector.

In the future, Horn predicts the majority of students will be engaged in what he calls "blended learning" where they'll learn online with control over the pace of their learning in schools with teachers providing guidance. As new technologies and applications are introduced into schools, he also predicts the future of teaching shifting into three roles: Teachers who act as mentors and motivators; content experts; and case workers that help students deal with non-academic obstacles to learning. Horn sees such changes creating a more student-centric education system where each child can learn at a customized pace and path.

An example Horn cites is the Khan Academy, launched in 2006 by Salman Khan, a Bangladeshi-American with a mission to provide high quality and free education to anyone in the world through an online platform. An MIT and Harvard Business School graduate, Khan came up with the idea after tutoring his cousin in mathematics using Yahoo!'s Doodle notepad. Other relatives and friends began seeking similar help, leading Khan to begin creating tutorials and distributing them on YouTube. According to The New York Times, over 3.5 million students watch his educational videos every month. Over the years, he received significant financial contributions from individuals and organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google and recently from the O'Sullivan Foundation to continue and expand his work to a global audience and to build a school.

Horn sees mobile applications as another opportunity to extend access to learning to the 70 million children worldwide that don't have access to primary education. He views education as a means for people to gain access to a better life and believes with that understanding, better learning products and services can be designed to meet that purpose.

As technology that allows for people globally to communicate with one another is constantly improving, Horn spoke with Arabic Knoweldge@Wharton on global innovations he sees in education and on how technologies can allow for countries around the globe to leap frog the way educational institutions were traditionally developed in countries such as the U.S. using a bricks-and-mortar model.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How can some of the technological advancements we've seen in education translate into job creation opportunities? Could young coders in the Middle East work with coders in Silicon Valley to develop websites?

Michael Horn: Absolutely. Ultimately I think the purpose of education in our society and the reason we publicly fund it, in a lot of cases, is to help people live meaningful lives where they can find employment. Understanding that employers are often the end customers is important as people design systems in these countries. I think we've often lost sight of that in the U.S.

I'll give a U.S.-based example and we can apply it to the broader world. I was visiting a more liberal state in the U.S. where high school students were doing a project online with a conservative state on constitutional law and the government. The students from the liberal states were shocked that they reached the same conclusion as students from the conservative state as they worked through the projects. What a powerful statement to be able to work and bridge thoughts on what we think are divides and realize we can reach a consensus and do these things together.

If you can expand that to thinking about people in China, India, the Middle East, Singapore, Europe, the U.S., Latin America, and elsewhere around the world, working together in exciting ways, over these mediums at a much younger age to build collaboration, understanding, [presents] a huge opportunity. Not only in terms of the breakthroughs that can occur in learning, but also in terms of the understanding of what people can do together no matter where you're from, and also addressing the real cultural differences where those exist.

I think it's a huge opportunity and the only thing standing in the way of that technically is that there are rules, laws and regulations that tend to restrict learning to a specific geographic area. I think we have to be broader-minded about that as we go into the future. I think exporting education for a place like India, where you have millions and millions of people who can speak English and communicate on the web, can be a huge opportunity for them to teach the world. There are lots of entrepreneurship opportunities there as well and it's pretty exciting.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What influence do you think the Khan Academy has had in rethinking education?

Horn: The Khan Academy really shows that a great teacher anywhere can now reach any student anywhere, and that's a pretty amazing thing to think about. As the Khan Academy starts to turn that into a platform where other teachers can participate to create learning opportunities for students around the world for free, it's amazing what that can become.

They are doing a lot of work on analytics to try to understand how to predict mastery, how many times someone has to go over something until they really learn it; what are the right learning pathways. This is just a huge thing if we're really thinking about learning in its truest form that has never existed before. We've had books, but they've haven't been interactive where they've gotten feedback on whether students actually do or do not do well with them. That potential and the free price point is astounding on what it could do for the world. It's also inspiring a lot of people to become entrepreneurial in their approaches and I think that's really exciting.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Many U.S. institutions for instance are building satellite campus in places such as Doha and Abu Dhabi. How would you advise institutions that are considering such expansions?

Horn: The advice I'd have is to be very clear on what purpose and mission they're going into it with, and what they're trying to get out of it. From that, it will help them determine what things they need to be putting in place. If they're really just trying to extend access to the world, maybe keeping it very separate from their mainstream operations and putting in a business model that makes sense in the country in which they're operating. Leveraging online learning would probably be very critical.

On the other hand, if they're looking to use this as a way to bring more global perspectives into the organization that they already operate, that's a very different set of design elements you have to put in place. I think its understanding what they're trying to get out of it and also understanding the local context they are entering and what students in that country actually need. I think it will look very different in different places based on their considerations.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What are good examples of institutions that have successfully expanded and can they maintain such success?

Horn: New York University obviously received a lot of acclaim for being pretty bold in this area and trying to reach out globally. INSEAD and others have been doing it for a long time and I think have been successful in their aims.

A dramatic question that everyone will have to think about is as institutions such as MIT, for instance, come online saying they want to extend education to anyone anywhere, does that change the equation? Are people still looking for elite research-based campuses? I suspect the answer in some cases will be yes, but in other cases some countries will have the option to leapfrog over what we've always done in the U.S. Instead of bringing that traditional mindset, I think it's important to understand the context and ask if we were to do this from scratch again, is this the right way to do it.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What are some of the other examples of educational leapfrogging that can happen?

Horn: Let's look at a parallel example outside of education. I think a critical parallel is if you look at the development of communications. There are countries that are developing telephones systems and access to communications without putting landline telephone systems throughout their country. They are moving right to mobile communication and are able to dramatically rethink what those networks do. For example, mobile payments are well ahead of the U.S. in the places like Africa for very good reason.

I think that's the same opportunity countries have to reimagine the education system as we move into the future. There are technologies that you allow you do things you could never have imagined before. Aggregations of different functions make it more affordable and more accessible. People should use that as an image and that context as an advantage and not see it as a detriment.

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