Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Disrupting class

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.


Twin Mom said...

Much of what teachers do is monitor and control behavior. That's hard to do online. It isn't the motivated kids who fail to learn, as a whole.

Laura Vanderkam said...

@Twin Mom - true, and also true that one key function of school, at least when children are young, is childcare -- you need adults around monitoring them even if they are well-behaved. But these adults don't all need to be licensed teachers, and that's where this gets interesting. You can separate out the functions of a teacher and reassign ones that don't require as much training.

Anonymous said...

While I completely love Kahn Academy (as the parent of a highly gifted child with an insatiable interest in math)there is, however, something to a real relationship. A teacher, as an inspirational figure and mentor, cannot be replaced by software. I remember my best teachers' stories, sayings and enthusiasm much more than the last webinar I took to expand my knowledge in a certain area. A good teacher is irreplaceable and for some kids, the only positive adult figure in their childhood.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Although I often enjoy live lectures, I can rarely sit through a recorded one—even from one of the "best" lecturers.

The online courses currently have huge dropout rates (the cheaper the course the higher the dropout rate, but even expensive classes have high drop out rates).

I think that online courses will replace some of the lowest quality live courses, but that the rich will continue to demand higher quality. (Just as only the rich can afford top-quality live theater and opera.)

Michael B. Horn said...

We are actually pretty close to our predictions becoming reality--and important, we're generally talking about online learning in the confines of a school or blended learning.

Laura Vanderkam said...

@Michael- thanks for your comment. I wonder if there will need to be a particular action to create a tipping point. I've been talking with lots of folks on what might happen if money did really follow a kid -- down to the credit hour. You could pay rent to a school for use of space and a computer (and an adult to watch over you). It's interesting to see what all the different models of digital-informed education might be, from Rocketship to Florida Virtual School, etc.

Anonymous said...

Love this topic. We cyber schooled and put on weight. Mentally gifted people love all the information out there and are directly involved in making all of that great communication happen. Random points to share. Saw and heard a student on the continent of Asia commenting that he felt definitely that his schooling was zapping his creativity. Let your gifted child have down time and you'll be amazed what he or she will create.

Bostonian said...

Educational technology has not had a great impact so far in the public schools, but that may say more about the structure of the schools and their ideology than about the possible value of technology.

Teachers' unions effectively run the schools, and they do not want labor-saving technology. They do perennially call for the opposite -- "smaller class sizes".

Teachers, administrators, and policymakers are egalitarians who want to keep all students through the same curriculum, rather than admitting that IQ limits what students can learn. Online curricula such as EPGY let some children go MUCH faster than others, and the schools do not want that.

Educational technology will approach its potential as the financing of inefficient schools and colleges becomes impossible and people, especially parents, are forced to find alternatives.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this type of trend really worries me. Having had experience with EPGY, Khan Academy, some online lectures, and of course online research, I do have some thoughts about digital learning.

First, that we are SO lucky to have this wealth of information at our fingertips. And for people who only have access to poor quality teachers (like Laura's history teacher who did a dismal job) or no access (such as kids wanting to study Arabic in public school), digital learning can be a big help!

However, I have found that while there are apparent perks to online learning (move at your own pace!), retention is FAR lower than when students learn from a memorable person. Now, of course we can hope that the interfaces will somehow drastically improve (it is very easy to see improvement for the drab EPGY), but it will never be as memorable as the interactions I had with my fabulous teachers.

Small example. My son was doing a poetry unit 2 weeks ago. When they were learning about metaphors and similes, his teacher took them outside on a "hunt". They had to find 10 metaphors & 10 similes in nature (for example, they found a cut down triple tree trunk that was like an Olympic podium for gold/silver/bronze medalists). Now, it isn't hard to explain what similes and metaphors are--it might take one minute. A computer could easily teach it. But that could be easily forgotten. However, those kids in my son's class will probably never forget that day--and the concepts are permanently ingrained in their minds. Although they go outside a lot and incorporate nature!

I would not be content to think that the bulk of my childrens' learning came digitally. Fine for supplements when needed!

Also, I think people should be very concerned about children having their faces in front of screens all the time. Not for my children, please!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Heard a recent report that future human endeavors are so complex that they require large groups of people in order to achieve. Made me feel better about having our child in large, inclusive setting. This generation wants to further space exploration. They are banking on Mars.

lgm said...

On-line learning lets the student learn at a faster pace than the fully included classroom. It will be years before my state (NY) allows these courses as the Union is making sure their members stay continuously employed. If the money followed the child, many would be gone from public school in a flash. I already pay the equivalent of private religious school tution in school taxes on a starter home. Once sports and music are gone, there will be no reason to attend high schools that gatekeep, as much better courses are available online to ALL qualified children, not just the political favs.

lgm said...

By the way, my son is forced into distance learning after precalc due to our superintendent's decision to put the money into remedial and truants rather than elective college prep classes. Or I could just teach him myself, should I not want a 15 year old in college full time.

Anonymous said...

School is more than just school. It offers leadership opportunities, sports, the arts, debate, learning to critique and these things need immediate feedback. Computers are fantastic for things that require drill and practice or for research but I would be reluctant to depend on it unless there was no other option. I also agree with Laura when she talks about childcare. Juvenile crime spikes between 3pm and 6 pm after school gets out and before parents get home. As to being able to hire cheaper employees with less training... I have seen a lot of problems with recess and lunchroom aides who I see as that type of employee. Someone who you can hire without benefits or for extremely low pay isn't necessarily the role model you want for your kids. These employees also have extremely high turnover, I am not sure that the savings is worth the loss of people who really know the school and the community. Again, if I were an administrator or an MBA I am sure I could show how that would add $$$ value...but I wouldn't want my own kids in that school and I probably wouldn't want to live in a community where most of the kids went to that type of school.

Bostonian said...

The Information Processing blog http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2012/06/future-of-higher-education.html writes as follows:

"1. Internet technology can enhance learning. However, I think the largest impact will be on cognitively gifted or very motivated individuals who will be able to accelerate their education (see, e.g., Khan Academy). For average students, the main barriers to learning have to do with self-motivation and I am not sure that streaming video of lectures, or even a virtual classroom environment which allows rich interaction, will provide better stimulus than the traditional lecture. It seems to me that my intro students have trouble paying attention even when I am literally dancing around at the front of the class, telling jokes and working through elaborate physics demonstrations (which often include explosions or bouncing balls or colorful animations). Moving the lectures online will be cheaper, but not necessarily better -- a win for efficiency, perhaps, but no solution for the difficulty that the average individual has in mastering challenging material."

I agree. There is more at the site.

Matt Holloway said...

Great, crucial topic and thread. One school here in Austin has taken this approach to "blended learning": do the boring stuff on the computer and the fun stuff in a group. The boring stuff would be "skill 'n drill" Math, Grammar, etc...the fun stuff everything else. (No, it's not boring to me, either, but it doesn't take a $55,000 a year teacher to teach the times tables).

--Matt Holloway