Friday, August 31, 2012

The Tipping Point to Personal Learning - Part 2

"Mt. Zion One-Room School," from
Museums of Worcester County, Maryland
According to the authors of the book Disrupting Class, the theory of disruptive innovation predicts the end of schooling as we know it within ten years. Well, at least the beginning of the end. (fn 8) 

Inquiring minds may want to know what educational forms will replace schooling. In this post I'm going to describe what the authors of DC predict. In the next post, I'll argue that those changes might be necessary but are decidedly not sufficient.

Disrupting Class does not contend that schools will cease to exist or that teachers will be replaced entirely by software. Instead, it projects a shift from the existing business model, which the authors identify as "value-chain" industrial processing, to a "facilitated user network" model. (fn 9) Put simply, rather than educators' adding value to students (by instructing them), educators and learners alike will use learning tools to access or create instructional modules.

A common misreading of the book, based on the commentaries and complaints that have issued in response to it, is that online learning is the disruptive innovation to schooling. The authors contribute to this confusion by conflating the concepts of online learning and computer-aided instruction. Yet they describe the disruptive innovation as "student-centric learning" facilitated by "computer-based learning products." (fn 10) Although online learning is the most visible (and measurable) manifestation of the disruption (fn 11), it's just a single aspect of the first disruptive stage. 

The disruptive innovation is better understood as a shift from teacher-based instruction to, first, computer-based instruction, then second, to student-oriented computer-delivered instruction. In education, we increasingly refer to this shift as "individualized learning." 

Student-oriented computer-delivered instruction... Individualized learning. Potayto... Potahto. 
Whatever you name it, the first stage of substitution replaces face-to-face teaching with computer-aided teaching -- flipped classrooms, blended learning, online tutorials, instructional games, drill-and-practice software,... These are, of course, commonplace -- at least in the K-12 education discourse if not in actual practice. The current darling of this first wave of substitution is Kahn Academy. (fn 12) Matt Wahl, who guides product implementation for KA, equates the Academy's videos to textbooks and interactive exercises -- "tools that can help learners." (fn 13) 

Another aspect of the first substitution stage is the use of personal computing devices (from laptops to cell phones). "'Students, perhaps without realizing it, are already seeking out ways to personalize their learning.'... [T]hey think mobile devices will help their learning by allowing them to check grades, take class notes, conduct research anytime or anyplace, access online textbooks, collaborate with peers and teachers, and more." (fn 14)

From "The Virtual Reality and
Education Laboratoryat East Carolina
University", in T.H.E. Journal, 11/99
During the second, more profound, stage of substitution, student-oriented computer-delivered instruction will replace conventional schooling altogether. In stage two, individualized, individually controlled, and increasingly individually designed learning modules will be provided through ever more sophisticated and adaptive software. Rather than an all-purpose Kahn Academy, each student will have her own academy of interactive learning tools -- just-in-time tutorials, virtual labs, online networks, global mentors -- built on broadly accessible platforms. She'll even be able to build her own learning tools, using instructional design software. (fn 15)

This modularized instruction will be created and shared through facilitated user networks, which is how the "value-chain" model of education will be replaced. Learners and teachers will use education networks to exchange learning modules -- a tutorial on fractions here, an extended study of Dante's Inferno there. "[U]sers will select these tutorial modules and insert them, like 'kernels,' to augment and customize the course to the learning needs of each different type of learner. Ultimately, people will assemble them together into entire course whose approach is truly student-centric -- custom-configured to each different type of learner." (fn 16)

Instead of instruction delivered by teachers delivering, we'll have modularized, self-paced computer-delivered instruction. Teachers will presumably help students to determine their learning needs, and will supervise -- perhaps even assist in -- the learning process. Teachers may even provide useful enrichment to the learning, through personal connection with students, applications of the learning, and coaching in various skills.

"Japanese School 'Hires' World's First Robot Teacher,"
posted by Geek on 9/12/09 to RealityPod.
These transformations will present some huge opportunities for learning. But they will also create some tremendous challenges -- not to mention the temptation to turn teachers into network monitors. In any case, the technological aspects of this disruptive innovation are already occurring -- in fact, already tipping toward inevitability. So, we educators need to start preparing now for how we'll shape the new learning environments and processes that emerge. Which is what I'll discuss in the next post.


fn 8 - Details on this projection are provided in my preceding blog post, "The Tipping Point to Personal Learning - Part 1."

fn 9 - DC, pp. 126-127: "Manufacturing, retailing, and food service companies are examples of.. value-chain businesses. These companies bring inputs of materials into one end of their premises, transform them by adding value, and deliver higher-value products to their customers at the other end. ...Most teaching currently operates like a value-chain business, too. Students are herded into a classroom at the beginning of the school year, value is added to them, and they're promoted to the next grade at year's end.
"In... facilitated user networks, customers exchange with each other." Examples are telecommunications, insurance, and banking. "Participation in the network typically isn't the primary profit engine for participants. Rather, the network is a supporting infrastructure that helps the buyers and sellers make money elsewhere. The company that makes money in a user network is the one that facilitates the network."

fn 10 - DC, pp. 122-124. Throughout these pages, the authors use "online," and "computer-based" interchangeably. For instance, they say, on p. 123, "[The] second stage of disruption in public education...will cause the world to 'flip' and make student-centric online technology a reality." Their terminology is confusing, especially for educators used to a pretty specific meaning for the phrase "online learning."

fn 11 - Disrupting Class was published in 2008. Since then, their projection has been borne out by actual events in the education marketplace. Online and blended learning, which grew from 45,000 enrollments in fall 2000 to one million in fall 2007 (DC, p. 98), grew again to 3 million in fall 2009  ("The rise of K-12 blended learning (executive summary)," by Michael Horn and Heather Staker, from Innosight Institute; -- accessed 3/16/12/). In addition, virtual school enrollment is growing by more than 10% per year  ("Marketplace Adjustments," by Ian Quillen, in Education Week: Technology Counts, 3/15/12, p. 28). 

fn 12 - Salman Kahn positions his collection of more than 3,000 video lectures "as a platform for teachers to go to whenever they want. We’re layering on more content and more tools for students and to track their progress." ("Q&A: Khan Academy founder says videos can help teachers, students," by Hayley Tsukayama, in The Washington Post: - accessed 8/28/12) 

fn 13 - "Khan Academy Talks Analytics, OER, and iPads," by Stephen Noonoo, in t/h/e Journal, 4/5/12, - accessed 8/28/12).

fn 14 - "Students want personalized learning, mobile technology," by Laura Devaney, in eSchool News, 4/26/12, - accessed 8/28/12). The article summarizes and quotes the survey report entitled "Mapping a Personalized Learning Journey: K-12 Students and Parent Connect the Dots with Digital Learning" (/

fn 15 - DC, p. 134: "The tools of the software platform will make it so simple to develop online learning products that students will be able to build products that help them teach other students. Parents will be able to assemble tools to tutor their children. And teachers will be able to create tools to help the different types of learners in their classrooms. These instructional tools will look more like tutorial products than courseware."

fn 16 - DC, p. 136. The vision of this technological utopia is laid out in pp. 134-141.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Tipping Point to Personal Learning - Part 1

According to the authors of the very important book Disrupting Class, 2012 is the year in which the logarithmic curve of computer-based learning consumption "tips" -- i.e., hits the "elbow" and begins to gobble up increasingly large chunks of conventional schooling. By 2019, the authors project, "50% of high school courses will be delivered online." By 2024, "80% of courses... will have been taught online in a student-centric way." (fn 1) 

This is big.

A quick review of disruptive innovation theory, the basis for this projection:
The authors (Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson -- economists, not educators, who have more than a decade of work in this area report that most innovations are "sustaining;" a sustaining innovation increases the efficiency or effectiveness of what an organization does and boosts the consumption of its products or services. For example, assembly line production. The occasional "disruptive" innovation actually creates a whole new market -- a new wave of products and services that appeal to completely new consumers. Examples include transistor radios and personal computers. (fn 2)
In Disrupting Class the authors claim that the disruptive innovation now occurring in public K-12 education is the shift "from teacher-delivered to software-delivered instruction." This shift is occurring in two stages: 
     (1) computer-based learning, in which proprietary instructional software and online curricula will be used to instruct kids in pretty much the "monolithic" way that schooling is now conducted;
     (2) student-centric technology, in which self-managed software will "help students learn each subject in... ways that are customized for them." (fn 3)

Disruptive innovations consistently create S-shaped substitution curves. (fn 4) "[T]he initial substitution pace is slow; then it steepens dramatically; and, finally, it asymptotically approaches 100 percent of the market." (fn 5) 

Ultimately, the disrupted organization or industry is destroyed. The only organizations that "survive" are the ones that essentially re-invent themselves; in other words, the organization's name is about the only thing that remains. (fn 6) So, the authors project, despite schooling's continual improvement throughout the 20th century and into the 21st (fn 7), "software-delivered instruction" will destroy public K-12 education -- at least destroy the institution that we identify as public education

From Free Range, by Bill Whitehead
Exactly what the new forms of education will look like is unclear. But if - as seems likely - the DI model applies, within a decade we'll be doing school in completely new ways.

What new ways? No schools? No school districts? No teachers? Well, the authors of DC have some thoughts on this. And so do I. Next post.


fn 1 - DC, pp. 98 and 102.

fn 2 - DC, p. 47:  "A disruptive innovation is not a breakthrough improvement. Instead of sustaining the traditional improvement trajectory in the established plane of competition, it disrupts that trajectory by bringing to the market a product or service that actually is not as good as what companies historically had been selling. ...[B]y making the product affordable and simple to use, the disruptive innovation benfits people who had been unable to consume the...product -- people we call 'nonconsumers'." Transistors, for example, weren't powerful enough to run the large radios (and televisions) that served as the household entertainment centers from 1920 to 1970. But transistors opened a wholly new market -- portable entertainment that one could take to the park or commuting on the bus. Other examples: Personal computers (vs. mainframes), the iPod (vs. CD players), or "Ask Chuck" stock purchasing (vs. brokerages). 

fn 3 - DC, pp. 91-92.

fn 4 - The S-curve of substitution shown below is from p. 97 of DC.

fn 5 - The quoted text is from DC, p. 96. See pp. 76-81 of DC for three case studies of disrupted companies -- RCA (electronics), Merrill Lynch (investment management), and Nypro (industrial processing). Numerous other examples are sprinkled through the book, for example on pp. 58 (Canon disrupting Xerox; Japanese car companies disrupting American automakers) and 60 (Compaq and Dell disrupting DEC; Wal-Mart and Target disrupting department stores; Apple disrupting recording distribution).

fn 6 - DC, p. 61:  "In our studies of disruptive innovation in the private sector, we are not aware of a single instance in what a for-profit company was able to implement successfully the disruptive innovation within its core business.... The few that survived disruption did so by creating, under the corporate umbrella, a new business unit, with a new business model attuned to the disruptive value proposition."

fn 7 - DC, p. 51. The authors of DC are not among the legion of critics who blame schools for our societal decline. Indeed, they make a powerful argument (pp. 51-64) that schooling has been hugely successful. They contend that schools have done "remarkably well" despite numerous substantial shifts in the demands placed on them -- better, in fact, than private sector companies have done when faced with comparable disruptions.