Khan Academy video is an example of disruptive technology in education.

How to educate America’s children is the $68.1 billion question before the U.S. Department of Education these days–a question that, in the wake of government-wide budgetary adjustment, is due for some serious reexamination. And the answer may well be in the form of disruption, according to experts featured on a recent airing of “Federal Spending”.

Michael Horn of Innosight Institute suggested that disruptive innovation may not only offer cost-effective options for today’s classrooms, but also change the face of education as we know it. Horn described Disruptive Innovation as a process that, generally speaking, can make complex, cumbersome industries more accessible and affordable.

Although education is yet to undergo this sort of innovation on a grand scale, Horn indicated that current trends, particularly the rise of online education, may have a major impact on the future of learning. Applying a mathematical formula that measures the rate of usage increase of certain innovations, Horn’s institute predicts that, by the year 2019, 50% of high school courses will be presented online.

Acknowledging that school funding varies across districts and localities, Horn indicated that some districts which offered online courses initially funded them through yearly line-item appropriations before some states shifted to a more efficient model that allowed dollars to follow students to the online course level.

“Because it’s a more affordable model, in many cases, you see these online schools actually providing the technology for students as part of the per pupil funding,” he said.

While trending toward what Horn calls a “blended learning model” – combining traditional classroom learning with online learning – initially requires an influx of capital in order to get the necessary infrastructure in place, Horn said that, over time, the model flips, and the innovation begins to pay for itself.

One major challenge of such a proposal is simply ensuring that districts have the required technological infrastructure, such as broadband connections, in place to support the innovations. Horn suggested that E-Rate, the program which helps many U.S. schools and libraries obtain telecommunications and internet access, needs reevaluation in order to effectively meet the growing challenge of supporting new technologies.

The potential changes to the landscape of education don’t just apply to K-12 institutes but also, and perhaps foremost, to colleges and universities. Co-author of The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out and administrator at BYU-Idaho, Henry Eyring provided insight on the current post-secondary education situation.

Today, many colleges and universities, both public and private, are facing funding challenges, with private school endowments and state funding decreasing, along with the amount that the federal government can contribute to research.

While tuition costs are rising to offset some of these losses, a tough job market will undoubtedly cause many students to consider whether a college education is a worthy investment. With all evidence pointing to a necessary change in the educational model, Eyring believes that online learning and adoption of new materials are intriguing cost-saving opportunities for schools, innovations that would allow institutions to spread the cost of operating the physical facilities across more students and still provide a higher quality of learning.

With what Eyring calls an “inverted classroom” model, students could electronically access lecture materials before and after class meetings, potentially leading to better discussions. A shift in the classroom setting, with professors calling on students to teach material to one another, would also contribute to an improved learning experience.

On the question of costs, Eyring noted that the introduction of new, affordable education tools geared to particular learning challenges on a course-by-course basis, bypassing the central administration, would further help defray expenses.

“Part of bringing the price down will be using the technologies and the learning products and services that for-profit providers are introducing,” Eyring said, pointing to such potentially disruptive and open-source technologies as the Khan Academy (see video above) and MIT’s online course offerings. Gradual adoption of such technologies would ultimately, as Eyring said he hopes, allow more and more students to experience college life.

But the education buck doesn’t stop at post-secondary education. Karen Trebon, deputy program manager at, a GSA site designed to seek public input on various issues government agencies face, described some of the informative technologies that have sprung from the program’s efforts, tools which serve to not only benefit students and government agencies but also, through the dissemination of new information, the general public.

Itself created through a no-cost contract,, Trebon said, has seen the development of many new and innovative education resources, including the EPA’s mobile apps on the environment and classroom posters on the election process.

With some challenges offering a particular prize amount and others seeking pro bono work, the site offers agencies a much more affordable means of problem solving than paying a team of specialists to create new materials, receiving, as well, a diversity of potential solutions from the public.

While traditional procurement involves proposals, challenge solutions come ready-made. “With challenges, a lot of time, you get the product already built,” said Trebon. “You get an array of solutions, not an array of proposals.”

Describing challenges ranging in complexity from poster and video challenges to NASA and Department of Defense challenges seeking prototypes aimed at addressing complex scientific and technological issues, Trebon estimated that up to 95% of government agencies are currently using the site to pose challenges to the public, suggesting many cost-saving opportunities in the future.

Tony Sheehan, a Washington, D.C.-based researcher who follows education and Washington’s needs to reduce costs, observes: “Since 1970, overall public school employment has increased 10 times faster than school enrollment with no discernible benefit to school performance.”

Ultimately, the potential infrastructure changes may serve to not only lower costs, but broaden the education realm to allow for a diversity of educational tools and extend the learning experience well beyond the classroom.

Click here to listen to the entire program.