But the prize’s emphasis on software innovation may oversimplify the fact that to grow successfully, disruptive innovations often require a whole new value network. New customers typically purchase the disruptive product through new channels and use the disruptive product in new venues. A “channel” refers to not just outlets like wholesale distributors and retail stores, but any entity that adds value to or creates value around the company’s product as it wends its way toward the hands of the end user. For example, a physician’s practice is a channel through which many health care products provide needed care to patients.

Disruptive value networks and channels are important concepts to consider in any education market and one that any new software product must take into account. In education, a value network is the context in which students consume education—this is often defined by policies or informal norms that supply public funding or dictate behavior, as well as educational resources at students’ disposal.

The Global Learning XPrize is aiming to spur the design of software that can serve students in as direct, unmediated manner as possible. But even laser-like focus on developing a software program that successfully allows children to teach themselves should not presume that education itself is occurring in a vacuum—indeed, everything from hardware to physical settings, peer engagement to adult supports, culture to connectivity will likely play into the success of failure of a given software product in the developing world.

Diamandis is already thinking through some of these complementary elements, such as partnerships with hardware providers to ensure that the open source software can be deployed alongside free or affordable devices. Still, the XPrize’s current framing draws a sharp dichotomy between autonomous learning and the concept of education occurring in some broader context or circumstance. As our blended-learning research demonstrates, educational software can provide the fuel for personalized-learning models. But these models are defined not only in terms of their use of software and hardware to drive personalized learning.

Models are also characterized by the particular brick-and-mortar settings where students go to learn; new roles for adults—even if these adults are not trained as traditional educators—who care for, support, or motivate students; and sometimes even new distribution channels, like libraries or community centers where students can access online-learning programs. Particularly for younger children, the physical setting and face-to-face supports in many blended-learning models may be important factors in scaling sustainable learning platforms, even if the bulk of content delivery is occurring online.

To ensure that the $15 million dedicated to the Global Learning XPrize spurs new models for learning, the prize committee should thoroughly consider the entire value network in which these new software products stand to operate. As they evaluate what is sure to be an impressive suite of submissions, the prize committee should conduct research on what products appear to be working for what students in what circumstances.

They should take pains to describe these circumstances in great detail, and to test assumptions about what contextual factors make a model successful. This would likely help the XPrize Foundation to reveal a range of different models that work for different children—not merely a one-size-fits all approach. Evaluating submissions based on these contextual factors may also encourage software developers to think in terms of models rather than products, shepherding both technical and instructional talent to meet the Foundation’s ambitious goals.

This article first appeared in the Clayton Christensen Institute.

Julia Freeland researches innovative policies and practices in K-12 education, with a focus on competency based education policies, blended learning models, and initiatives to increase students’ social capital.

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