Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Disrupting Class

Most of us in education are pretty resistant to having people in the business world tell us how to do things. I'm not taking sides on this one, but it's a professional bias. I've learned that the business world actually does have some things we in education could learn. Since everyone went to school, everyone feels they are an expert in the field and as such are qualified to offer their recommendations. One often hears the lament that schools need to be run like a business. Of course, one could argue that schools are actually far more successful than businesses, but that's another story...Like I said, I see both sides of this issue.

So when I picked up Clayton Christensen's Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, I felt all my old biases coming back to me. He's a professor at Harvard Business School and I figured he'd drag out all the old saws we educators hear. But the book was a bit of surprise to me and I found myself agreeing with much of what Christensen had to say. Essentially, the book argues that new technologies ("disruptive technologies") are about to pose a serious threat to traditional education. With the current emphasis on differentiated instruction and individual learning styles, technology-based, individualized instruction is going to subtly, but rapidly, overtake traditional education. I've heard Faith Popcorn raise the same issue at the National Association of Independent Schools' conference, but she was not nearly as convincingly.

These new technologies are developing primarily in the form of online courses offered outside of the traditional school structure. This is an important point for Christensen and he draws a parallel to how home computing developed in the shadow of mainframe computers and eventually gutted that industry. Right now, the online education field is meeting a completely unmet need, serving primarily kids who cannot receive certain types of instruction in their own schools. As this "industry" develops, it's going to be able to provide kids with far more customized instruction to meet kids' different learning styles. He predicts that by around 2012 or so, that around 50% of seat time in classes will be through online courses. I think that's a bit too quick, but I don't necessarily dispute the general point.

He points out that the current system is inherently incapable of adopting this revolution precisely because it is successful. At best, the system will attempt to cram new technologies into the existing paradigm. He points out industries that have tried to do this and failed and he also points to some educational efforts with the same results. None of this is actually an assault on traditional education per se. He argues that it is doing a very good job on its own terms. The problem is that these disruptive technologies are creating a paradigm shift that will make whatever improvements we've made obsolete.

He's not predicting the end of schools as such, but he is arguing that schools are going to look very different in the future. He foresees charter schools and pilot schools becoming more prominent and he argues that we will need to recognize that the idea of comprehensive schools will go by the wayside. We're going to need to customize schools to meet all kinds of learners in the future. He also sees that what teachers do will also change pretty dramatically. He uses that hackneyed line of us becoming "guides on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage". I hate the line, but see his point.

The end of the book seems to drift off topic a bit and has a fairly extensive critique of current educational research, but for the most part, Christensen's argumentation is crisp and concise. His conclusions are definitely controversial and will undoubtedly upset some. I don't know that I agree with him 100%, but I do think he raises some important issues that we as educators need to look into and address head on.

1 comment:

MHorn said...

Good post and a fair review of the book I think. One of our hopes, of course, is that current schools see this potential "threat" as an opportunity and really make the shift themselves. And there are some signs they are doing so.
One other small point -- our 50% projection is by 2019, so about a decade from now.
Thanks for sharing your perspective!