Disruptive, Online Education to go Main Stream

I’ve long been a fan of Clayton Christensen’s ‘disruptive innovation” theories outlined in “Innovator’s Dilemma” and the follow up “Innovator’s Solution I think he provides a great deal of sound theoretical and practical reasoning about the process of innovation. Unfortunately, the examples in his books come mostly from industry and especially high tech innovation contexts. Thus, Walter Archer, Randy Garrison and I wrote an article in 1999 Adopting disruptive technologies in traditional universities: Continuing education as an incubator for innovation. applying Christensen’s ideas to distance education and extension education. The paper actually won an award, but we just just scratched the surface.

Thus, I was thrilled to see that Christensen, has teamed with a couple of educators to write a whole book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation will Change the Way the World Learns devoted to disruptive innovation in schools. Disrupting ClassFirst, let me say that the subtitle is a bit misleading in that the context of “world learners” is the USA and only that subset enrolled in formal K-12 education. But that is one of only a few limitations of the book.

The thesis Christen argues is that in education as in other ‘industries’ disruptive technologies- those that “transform a market whose services are complicated and expensive into one where simplicity, convenience, accessibility and affordability characterize that industry” p. 11 are relentlessly fueling innovation. Now I know that for many of us, thinking about innovation in education seems almost an oxymoron, and Christensen notes that bureaucratic and administrative mentalities attempt to “shape every innovation into a sustaining innovation – one that fits processes, values, and the economic model of the organization – because organizations cannot naturally disrupt themselves” p. 74.

The technology that Christensen argues is the key disrupter is of course online learning. Not the use of computers in classrooms that generally only add cost to existing models, but rather the “anywhere/anyplace” type online learning that displaces “monolithic, classroom instruction”. Many of us having been proclaiming for years that the “sky is falling’ on traditional models of delivery, but Christensen uses his plotting theory to provide a logarithmic graph (shades of Ray Kurweil here) postulating that by the year 2019 “student centric’ technologies will displace over 50% of classroom instruction. This follows the slow start, rapidly accelerating trajectory associated with all disruptive technologies. Between then and now, improving technologies with multiple paths for the different ways student learners, coupled with decreasing costs and looming teachers shortages will create conditions in which more than half of the students (and their parents) will find more attractive than classroom delivery.

I was also impressed that Christensen sees the evolution of user -generated content via easy and accessible web 2.0 tools to create Produser type products as the driving force for the innovation. The first phase, well upon us, is the use of the disruptive technologies to serve folks where the options are ‘online or nothing’- as confronts traditional distance education students. The second phase shifts to modular production of thousands of ‘tutor aides’ distributed through user networks that reaches critical mass in 2014 when 25% of students have opted for this model of formal learning.

Christensen’s US centric politics come out in the final chapters when he talks about forging a consensus for change. He has little faith in the established public systems’ capacity for change and seems to look to charter and independent schools and provides examples of leaders who threaten to fire all the teachers, or separating (creating new schools) as means to forge the consensus for change needed.

Given my interest in educational research, I was especially intrigued to find that Christensen has a chapter on “Improving Educational Research”. However, there was little new here, mostly a rehash of the now familiar research lingo from the US right, arguing for a move from descriptive to prescriptive models, where knowing exactly what works, will allow EVERYONE to make the right educational decisions. If things don’t work then we are back to studying the context, but rather than acknowledging that knowledge is contextually determined, he argues that we just need to tweak what could be inferred as laws of learning to meet specific contexts. The chapter then provides the reader with an elementary lesson in validity and reliability and Christensen then reverts to his more familiar turf to talk about research on the ‘history of manned flight’ (make that humaned flight). However to be fair, Christensen seems to come around to at least an acknowledgment of importance of context, when he concludes the chapter by noting failures could have been avoided in following research results if ” the user had “defined the categories or situations in which the recommended actions would be effective”p. 174.

Don’t buy the book for the research chapter! But readers of this blog will likely both enjoy and have many of our intuitions about change in education both confirmed and informed by this important book.



One Response to “Disruptive, Online Education to go Main Stream”

  1.   Glen Moriarty Says:

    Thank you for the post and summary. I am also a big fan of Christensen. I’m amazed that he took on the topic of education; it seems so removed from the typical toyota, intel, examples. I’m ordering it now and will use it to further shape what we do at http://www.nixty.com.

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