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Disrupting Class

By Murray Bourne, 21 Oct 2008

Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will change the Way the World Learns

Hardcover, by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson

A Summary Review

Any attempt to "infuse" e-learning into schools is bound to fail, according to Christensen in Disrupting Class. And it seems that he is right when you consider the billions that have been spent placing computers in schools across the world, and then examining how underutilized - and ineffective - those computers are.

Christensen's viewpoint comes from his background as a researcher into disruptive innovations. For an innovation to be disruptive, it needs to challenge the incumbent technology in a space where the incumbent is actually absent.

Examples of innovative disruption include Sony's transistor radio (which targeted a totally new market in the mid 1950s - teenagers who wanted mobile music and who were not being served by valve radios), the personal computer (Apple's early computers were successful among children who wanted to play computer games, an area not served at all by minicomputers in the early 1980s) and Google in the early 2000s (who saw a new way to rank Websites based on their popularity - determined by relevance of links. Contextual text ads were the key to propelling Google to status of search engine giant).

Disrupting Class provides interesting insights into the history of formal schooling in the USA and points out that in some ways it was probably better in the 19th century when many schools were one-teacher, one classroom, mixed age affairs. Why? Because the lessons were individualized and at the pace of the learner. The student did not move on to the next topic until he had mastered the current one. Move forward to today and you have a situation where 30 or so students all have to work at the teacher's pace and all move on to the next grade whether they are ready or not.

One of the great promises of computer-based learning is that it can individualize lessons and can adapt to the learner's strengths and difficulties. But it has not panned out so well in schools. Christensen points out that it is common in many industries that when a disruptive technology comes along there is great resistance from those who see it as a threat.

There are 2 ways to deal with a new disruptive technology - "cramming", which means squashing the new technology into the existing business model and making do; or "competing against non-consumption", which means spinning off a new unit to develop some completely new product (or service) and target it at a new market. One example of the latter approach is the path that Toyota took when developing the Prius hybrid car. They didn't go to their existing engineers and ask them to add an electric engine to an existing Corolla - instead they set up a new "sub company" and developed a new car from scratch.

So What's It Got to do With School?

In most schools, computers have been "crammed in" to the existing way of doing things and this has proved to be less than successful since it has not fundamentally changed the way education is done. Teachers still stand out the front and attempt to tell students a whole lot of information (all the while complaining about the constant distractions of mobile phones, laptops, iPods and the like).

Where the real action has occurred is where online learning has been aimed at those who cannot otherwise attend school (remote locations, illness, etc) or where there are no teachers to teach what the students want to learn (language comes to mind first, but this occurs across most subjects).

The possibilities for individualization of education are dramatically increased when computers are used in an intelligent way. A key thing here is that students can master a topic before moving on to a more complex topic. But more than that, students can become "doers" rather than "consumers" of knowledge.

Some Examples of Disruptive Schools

HighTech High is a charter school in LA, set up as a new institution with new approaches. As they say:

HighTech LA is a diverse community of active learners dedicated to fusing the traditional academic subjects with real-world technical applications and problem solving skills.

Computers are an integral part of the students' day at HighTech High.

"The Met" (Metropolitan Regional and Technical Center) in Rhode Island was also designed from the ground up. Their approach:

The Met’s program centers on workplace internships and independent projects tailored to each student’s interests.

Here in Singapore, Republic Polytechnic was given a mandate by the Singapore government to 'be different'. They have developed a new institution based on problem-based learning:

One of the distinguishing features of Republic Polytechnic’s education system is its unique adaptation of Problem Based Learning.

The campus is paperless and extensive use is made of an online learning management system by students and 'facilitators' (there are no 'lecturers' at Republic Polytchnic).

Another Singapore example: School of Science and Technology is still in the planning stages and is due to open in 2010.

The School of Science & Technology (SST) is a specialised independent school with special focus on Applied Learning.

I had the privilege of being involved in the planning for the applied mathematics curriculum in this school. This school will also have extensive use of computers as its focus. And like the others mentioned above, this school has been designed from scratch and its focus on applied learning could well be disruptive.

The Projected Growth of Online Courses

Back to the book.

Disrupting Class projects that by 2019, more than 50% of high school courses will be offered online. This could get a boost if gasoline prices remain much higher than previous decades and school buses become too expensive to operate.

In that time, huge numbers of baby boomer teachers will be retiring. We are in for big changes in education over the next decade.

Some Final Thoughts

The book tends to concentrate a lot on disruptive technologies in fields other than education and at various points (especially towards the end) I felt it strays from its core of suggesting how to implement computers in education.

One critical area that I felt was not given enough attention in the book was that of curriculum. Using computers does not only change the way we go about teaching and learning, but it also should affect what we teach. For example, does it make sense to spend hours doing mindless algebra when computer algebra systems can do it for us in seconds? Assessment also has to change as a result. If we want 21st century skills, we shouldn't still be testing 19th century topics in 19th century ways.

I like what the book had to say about educational research. They suggested that research should not just describe observed phenomena, but should be able to prescribe what to do in given situations. I'm not sure that it is quite so easy to do this in the education realm compared to the manufacturing or commercial worlds, but I believe it is a good thing to aim for.

I felt the book was a good read. It formalized a lot of things that I have felt about the futility of "cramming" technology into existing school systems and on the other hand, the need for "competing against non-consumption", which can be achieved by either setting up a new school (extremely expensive) or by setting up new autonomous units within existing schools and giving them the mandate to be different, to come up with alternative curriculum, assessment and approaches - all in an online (or hybrid) setting.

Update 1: Christensen dislikes the lock-step nature of most school systems as much as I do. Why do all 14 year-olds need to sit in the same class and move up to the next grade together? Some are ready to do so, but many are not. There's a nice anecdote in the book about the difference between the Chrysler approach to staff training (give the new guy on the assembly line 15 instructions at once and then have to re-do it when it is wrong) and the Toyota approach (give one instruction and give the trainee time to get it right - then give another, and so on. There is much less need for rectifying errors under such an approach). School should be more like this - wait till students actually get it before letting them go on. This is especially true in mathematics.

Update 2: There is an interesting laptop programme in Michigan. It shows "dramatic" improvement in test scores after students started to use laptop computers daily.

Hmmm... when will educators ever realise that education is a multi-variable situation? No one event leads to a "certain" outcome. Maybe the laptops stimulated the teachers to do things differently? Maybe the students felt "special" because they had access to computers (they were mostly from poor, working class backgrounds)? Maybe the students were learning in spite of what was designed for students to do?

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