September 23 2008

Disrupting Class

Clayton Christensen’s new book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns looks at the reasons why public schools in the US struggle to help all children fulfil their potential and offers solutions based on Christensen’s studies of innovation in the commercial sector. The answer, he argues, lies with online learning.

In fact, Christensen is so confident of his conclusion that he predicts by 2019, approx 50% of high school courses will be delivered online and by 2024, this percentage will have become 80%.

Christensen works from the assumption that children, and by extension people, learn in different ways. Therefore to teach effectively, schools need to cater their teaching style to the learning needs of each child (personalized learning being the appropriate buzz word). Unfortunately, this is currently not possible as the one teacher, one textbook, one time approach (named monolithic instruction by Christensen) employed by most US public schools leaves little opportunity for customisation. Do not fear, however, because online learning is at hand to save the day. Educational software will facilitate customised learning by allowing students to pick a teaching style, to learn at their own pace and to repeat material as necessary. In such a vision, teachers will act as tutors, walking around the class helping students with particular problems and providing guidance where necessary; instruction will be left to computers.

Unlike the sceptics who have noted the potential for online learning but argued that technophobia is widespread and schools will fail to harness the potential of new technology, Christensen believes that US public schools will adjust with relative ease to this new approach. The book briefly reviews some of the major changes that have occurred in the US state education system in the last hundred years and concludes that schools have proved themselves adept at adopting and meeting changing goals.

Happily the title “Disrupting Class” is not an attack on teachers in anyway but a reference to his theory of disruptive innovation. Differentiating between sustaining and disruptive innovations, Christensen identifies the latter with new products that are more accessible and usually cheaper, but initially of lower quality to existing products in the marketplace. Disruptive innovations therefore first take root among nonconsumers of the older products, whilst the underlying technology improves until the new product is of equal or higher quality to the traditional products. Applied to education, e-learning and its variants will first take root among students that for some reason cannot access their desired subjects within schools. For example, home schooled students, schools in rural areas where there are a lack of specialist teachers, poor rural urban schools that lack funds for specialist teachers or a wide array of course offerings or bright students that want to pursue non conventional subjects that are not offered in their schools. As more students enroll in e-learning courses, (and Christensen cites data showing that between 2000 and 2007, there was a 22 fold increase in enrolments) the quality of the courses will improve until mainstream schools are using online learning as a routine teaching tool.

Christensen’s greatest contribution to the education debate is definitely to place it within the framework of his theory of disruptive innovation. If like me, this was not a theory you had previously encountered, then the book makes for especially fascinating reading. I was so inspired that immediately after finishing it, I ordered The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), Christensen’s first book and winner of the Global Business Book Award for the best business book of the year. And generally, it’s just nice to read a book that is so positive about the future of education, because it seems to me that its predictions are as salient to the UK as they are for the US.

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  • Great idea! Teachers who focus too much on plans parrot lessons, instead of thinking during class. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

    Posted by Dr. Sanford Aranoff, 01/07/2013 9:50am (6 years ago)

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