I have a confession to make. And it is of a sin very dark indeed. In college, I minored in economics. (Pausing to allow the gasps to subside.) Yes, the dismal science, as so aptly described by Carlyle. It called to me during my undergraduate years as I took my first economics class, then intrigued, even fascinated, I took another and another. Unlike my majors and other minors, it was entirely unplanned and thus, dismayingly, was a pursuit of the heart. It is a difficult admission but, having made it, I feel better and lighter already.

In my defense, I enjoy economics because, when done well, it explains certain human behaviors that seem otherwise inexplicable. Here’s one: how did the large computer manufacturers of the early days of computing, when they absolutely dominated the market, ever allow themselves to be upended by personal computers, devices which could not hold a candle (or microchip) to the glorious reality of mainframes?

The answer, according to Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, is that the big boys of computers were not interested in personal computers because they were so clearly deficient compared to mainframes. Since almost no individuals or business could afford mainframes — which went for millions of dollars — personal computers were the only game in town for such. The first ones stunk, of course, but basking in an environment with zero competition since the mainframers were uninterested, they slowly got better and better. Then, one day, they took over, a bit like that small mammal did when the extinction of most of the dinosauria came like a bolt from the blue.

This seemingly unlikely process Professor Christensen calls disruptive innovation. And it is one of those things that is almost impossible to conceive until somebody points it out and then it becomes impossible to miss … or deny.

This is interesting to educators just now because of virtual education, any of a number of processes in which children are taught through software access (Successmaker), virtual meetings (Zoom), or recorded lessons (Kahn Academy). Now all of these pre-existed the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting physical school closures of last year’s fourth quarter and the necessity of eLearning because of quarantines, imposed and voluntary, this year. Up until that point, virtual education was alive and reasonably well, but vying with the strong competitor of the teacher in a classroom full of children. Thus, growth was slow, a prolonged, pitched battle with both sides making valiant efforts to make headway.

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But that changed, starting last year in mid-March, when everyone went home and teachers had to adjust to the new reality of teaching without students physically surrounding them. That sudden, unexpected reality of virtual schooling competing with, well, nothing at all in most cases, cleared the playing field. And virtual education improved. Noticeably. Undeniably.

But something else happened as well. The seemingly unalterable disadvantages of virtual learning emerged. With a vengeance. What might such difficulties include? Virtual school is a poor substitute for the kind of human contact available in the classroom. Virtual fails to build the community present in traditional schools.

Students who struggle in school and students who lack motivation to do well in school see their challenges multiplied. A young person struggling to grasp a concept like the scientific method typically finds it even harder when no teacher is present, not just out there but right here. A young person who would rather avoid educational pursuits can find any number of technological evasions. There have always been such students, unfortunately, and technology can actually enhance these counter-productive pursuits. (It is so much easier to hide behind a computer screen than in a school bathroom.) Virtual education, and the technology that supports it, seems deeply bifurcated. It speeds up everything, whether we are headed for Utopia or Dystopia.

So, in the end, I really don’t know whether virtual education will be the latest example of disruptive innovation. But I do know that education is now a definite proving ground for such. And what a serendipitous bit of windfall that I should have a ringside seat.

It’s enough to put a smile on the face of even the most dismal of school superintendents.