Tuesday, June 26, 2012
I recently read Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn's book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Christensen is best known for his book The Innovator's Dilemma, which chronicles how various industries have been wiped out by technological progress over time. Personal computers ultimately replaced the mainframes of yore, but in the early years, they didn't compete for the same market. Disruptive innovations usually come in from below. They're much cheaper. Only over time do they become better. But become better they do. Meanwhile, established companies focus on better serving their existing customers, but as a result, they don't change to accommodate the disruption until too late. The question in Disrupting Class is what this will look like in education. The book was written in 2008, so the predictions are already almost obviously old, and yet many that seem obvious haven't entirely come to pass either. Education is a resistant entity. If what you want to do is listen to a lecture on the quadratic equation, there is no reason not to hear it from the absolute best conveyer of the quadratic equation on the planet. Any kid who wants to take any language should be able to (Disrupting Class features a speculation about a high-achieving student wanting to take Arabic, and being able to through an online class). Years ago, I had a history teacher whose approach to US history involved putting questions and answers on the chalkboard, which we then spent the time in class writing down. What a waste of time when, these days, you could be listening and watching lectures from the best professors of US history around. Kids could look at those same questions and answers on a computer. And yet in many cases, these things don't happen. Why? There are vested interests, of course. But even in the theoretically more efficient and adaptable private sector, established companies can almost never innovate into new versions of their same industry. So Christensen, et al, see disruptive innovation coming from outside the usual channels. Hence, Khan Academy. Online and digital learning is more likely to take hold first in after school programs, summer school programs, and in alternative education programs (credit recovery, juvenile detention centers, etc.) Charter schools, likewise, might give it a whirl. At first, it's not as good. But over time, it gets better. And eventually, school will look very different. Or at least that's the idea. The authors predict that by 2014, about 25% of kids will be doing some kind of digital learning, and it will be at a tipping point. We're probably not that close now, but the field is changing rapidly, so it may not be too far off.