and the Myths & Metaphors of Disruptive Innovation
Last month, Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School released a new report, asking the question, “Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive?” Since its publishing, the report has garnered mixed responses from those in the Ed Tech community, some in support and others in opposition. This post will focus on two of those responses, Audrey Watters from Hack Education and Marie Bjerede from Getting Smart, as well as my personal reaction. However, before beginning, a closer examination of Christensen’s work should be made.
In 2008 Clayton Christensen published the book, “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.” For those not familiar with disruptive innovations, they are technological advances that disrupt an existing market by displacing old technology. For example, downloadable digital media has quickly begun to replace CDs and DVDs over the past few years.
In education, we are beginning to see this in the implementation of online classes which are disrupting the “existing market” of traditional face-to-face classes. To this point, Christensen’s book argued, among other things, that by 2019 at least half of all secondary classes would be taught online.
Five years later, Christensen et al. have revised their projection slightly, and in this new report they introduce the idea of hybrid models. Hybrids are classes that offer some portion of their content through online means, but are not solely online. In other words, they are a mix of traditional and online classes, with the classroom teacher still at the focal point of instruction.
Examples would be classes that employ blending learning and flipped lessons (where students learn material at home through online content, rather than from the teacher in a traditional lecture). Now, Christensen argues “that hybrid schools, which combine existing schools with new classroom models, will be the dominant model of schooling in the United States in the future.”
However, Christensen does not abandon the idea that eventually the majority of classes will be solely online; he is merely extending his prediction and stating that for the foreseeable future, these hybrid models will gain traction within the classroom.
But sooner or later (no concrete time frame is given this time around) “As disruptive models of blended learning do begin to transform schooling by replacing the traditional classroom, the fundamental role of brick-and-mortar schools will pivot. We suspect that schools will no longer become the primary source for content and instruction and instead focus their capabilities on other core services.”
Christensen goes on to define those core services as: providing a safe place for students to be while their parents are at work; providing social services such as counseling and free meals; and having a place “to have fun with friends.”
In short, schools will become more of a daycare service with a few guidance counselors to offer social services. Because “Once online learning becomes good enough, schools will be able to rely on it to deliver consistently high-quality instruction adapted to each student” and actual teachers will no longer be needed to deliver content and instruction.
So what is the role of the teacher in this new digitally-enabled school of the future? Christensen believes that with the burden of instruction removed, teachers will be able to focus on tasks like “the elimination of bullying, running athletic, musical, and artistic programs, and providing face-to-face mentoring.”
With the arts and athletics still intact, what becomes of the remaining subject area teachers? It seems in this new school model, the best teachers would be those who are essentially the best tutors and those who can help the students understand what their computer is telling them to do.
The Myth of Disruptive Innovation
In response to this report, educational writer and blogger Audrey Watters composed a critical and somewhat sardonic post entitled, “The Myth and Millennialism of Disruptive Innovation.” Watters argues that our society (and in this case, the field of educational tech) tends to be addicted to the myths and stories of our own end-times; for as Christensen proudly proclaims, “The end of education as we know is at hand! All learning will soon be online! Classroom teachers will be a thing of the past!” And we must accept it because, "despite any sort of hesitation...disruption will prevail." Or will it?
Watters believes that we hold this idea of disruptive innovation to be “unassailably” true, and that we have a bad habit of blindly perpetuating the myths of the destruction wrought by technology – “the death of newspapers, the death of print, the death of books, etc.” But she also believes that we often fail to recognize when these prophecies of doom do not unfold as originally predicted.
For example, there have been numerous articles, reports, and posts recently showing that these industries are not dead and nor are they dying; they are merely being reconceptualized and reborn in the ever-changing global marketplace.
So it is with Clayton Christensen. His original prediction of the education end-times has been revised and “revisioned” in this new report, now arguing that hybrid classrooms will soon become the dominant form of education, and that complete disruption (entirely online curriculum) will be left for the future. The end is still coming; they just don’t have an exact date.
The final, and perhaps most cutting point Watters makes is that Christensen is no mere observer of educational development. He has “actively lobbied governments for certain aspects of his agenda” and acts as a “vocal proponent for his particular vision of a disrupted and innovative future.”
For example, the Clayton Christensen institute (now known as InnoSight) is a member of ALEC, a “corporate lobbying organization whose education initiatives include writing and pushing for legislation that enables the outsourcing of education to for-profit, online education providers and that eases the entry restrictions on virtual schools.” In short, the very ideas that Christensen is predicting are what his organization is actively lobbying for.
The Metaphor of Disruptive Innovation
After Ms. Watters posted her response to Christensen’s report, Marie Bjerede of Getting Smart followed up with an article entitled “The Metaphor of Disruptive Innovation.” In the article, Ms. Bjerede commended Watters for “handing out uncomfortable truths that can make us wiser, more empathetic, more humble, and more thoughtful if we can hear them.” However, she went on to disagree with some of the finer points of Watters’ article.
Bjerede’s main argument is that she sees Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation as a metaphor that can be used to help educators find a common ground for discussing the role of technology in the future of education. As she says, the report, “tells about how disruptive innovation plays out in more complex scenarios” and helps us see how “the old technology, goals, [and] needs can be served” while shifting “the underlying infrastructure to new technologies, methodologies, cultures, and goals.”
So while Bjerede agrees with Watters in the importance of questioning the “unassailable” truths that are set before us, she also sees this new report as an important step towards understanding the future of educational technology. And she ends her post quite eloquently and poetically,
“It is incumbent on us all – storytellers, audience, and jesters to understand how and when these stories help us achieve our quests and slay our dragons and when they lead us astray, mistaking the map for the territory, following some will o’ the wisp until we are lost in the bog…”
Reminding us of the importance of continually questioning the “stories” we are leading to make certain we are on route to our quest’s end.
Regardless of Myth or Metaphor
Myth, metaphor, or whatever you want to call disruptive innovation, what do this report, and online classes in general, mean for K-12 educators and students? First, let’s look at what’s happening in schools right now with online classes and hybrid learning (i.e. blended and flipped classrooms)
The benefits of hybrid/blended learning are numerous and doing a quick search will net you hundreds of articles from the past few years which espouse the benefits. Blended learning allows students to learn content outside of the classroom so the teacher can focus on higher level activities like application and synthesis, it helps students become more digitally literate, self-motivated, and responsible, and when paired with lessons from an experienced teacher, blended learning provides an incredibly solid learning foundation. When executed properly, by a teacher who understands how the process works, blended learning is absolutely beneficial to student learning.
However, when it comes to classes that are strictly online, where the teacher merely serves as a “facilitator” to make sure the student is on task while having no actual input in the lesson, this is where problems can arise. This is also what Christensen envisions the future of education to be, “once online learning becomes good enough.”
My strong belief is that no online learning will ever be “good enough” to replace the face-to-face instruction of a master teacher, particularly in K-12 education. Can online classes be "good enough" to replace the burnt-out teacher whose sole role in the classroom is to hand out worksheets and have his aide grade them? Absolutely. But I have difficulty believing that any software will ever be able to replace the beautiful art that is a master teacher at work.
- Clayton Christensens et al. “Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive?”
- Audrey Watters: “The Myth and Millennialism of Disruptive Innovation.”
- Marie Bjerede: “The Metaphor of Disruptive Innovation.”
- New York Times: "More Students are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality"
- Kirsten Reach: "The Death of Print has been Greatly Exaggerated"