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September 4, 2009 / compassioninpolitics

Clayton Christensen’s “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns”

“Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” by Clayton Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson

Disrupting Class” is a great book on the future of education reform as it relates to technology, but to assume that the scope of this book is limited to the role that education technology will have in the classroom is to miss the point. Christensen wants to articulate a vision of practical education reform which is consonant with the cultural roots and purposes of American education.

The Failure of the Uni-dimensional Model of Education Delivery
The basic problem in American education as Christensen articulates it is that curriculum and pedagogy are monolithic. Drawing on scholars like Howard Garner, Christensen suggests that working with and cultivating multiple intelligences requires more than a monolithic textbook experience can provide. He suggests, and rightly so, that technology in the form of computer software and web content offer an end run around the procrustean bed which currently restricts and confines current educational reform.

Christensen further argues that computers have primarily been applied in ways which only further the current uni-dimensional curriculum. By offering more of a student-centric curriculum, students interest, motivation, and learning will dramatically improve. Christensen delineates, “Student-centric learning opens doors for students to learn in ways that match their intelligence types in places and at the paces they prefer by combining content in customized sequences.” He goes on to point out that, “Student-centric learning is the escape hatch from the temporal, lateral, physical, and hierarchical cells of standardization

This shift toward student-centric learning offers much for students, teachers, and administrators in terms of learning and even potential cost savings. Christensen substantiates, “Like all disruptions, student-centric technology will make it affordable, convenient, and simple for many more students to learn in ways that are customized for them.” (p. 92)

Future Growth in the Education Technology Market Space
Based on trends Christensen identifies and economic research e-learning in education is set to dramatically increase. He points to research which points out that “In the subsequent six years, the technology’s market share will grow from 5 percent to 50 percent. It will become a massive market.” And based on further business forecasts, “”80 percent of courses taken in 2024 will be online in a student-centric way” (p. 102)

Strategic Business Models in Education Technology
Christensen theorizes that three business models suggest themselves for those looking to create content and the technological architecture for change (and sustainable revenue). The three he suggest based on the work Oystein Fjeldstad and Charles Stabell are “solution shops, value chain, and facilitated user network.” Based on Christensen’s extensive research into disruptive innovation across industries that, “Success with disruptive innovations always originates at the simplest end of the market, typically competing against non-consumption.” So those firms which target an untapped or underutilized market will likely have the greatest effect, primarily because they face no competition and if they face competition its competition that is based on the model of the fading model of innovation/education.

The Creation of Student-Centric User Networks
User networks will help provide a fantastic community based solution for improving education delivery via technology. Christensen points out, “Facilitating student-centric learning through user networks, instead of through the value-chain system of curriculum adoption, satisfies the litmus tests of competing against non-consumption. Teachers, parents, and students, who otherwise could not develop or market there learning tools, will now be able to do these things.” This will allow schools to better deliver on their four core purposes:

1. Maximize human potential.
2. Facilitate a vibrant, participative democracy in which we have an informed electorate…
3. Hone the skills, capabilities, and attitudes that will help our economy…
4. Nurture the understanding that people can see things differently–and that those differences merit respect…
(p. 1)

This is a unique time for the emergence of student centric learning content and social aggregator platforms. Christensen illuminates a viable vision for innovation disruption:

The first will be the platforms that generate the creation of user-generated content. The second will be the emergence of a user network, whose analogues in other industries would include eBay, YouTube and dLife (for patients with diabetes and their families). 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. But rather than being “pushed” into classrooms through a centralized selection process, they will be pulled in into use through self-diagnosis–by teachers, parents and students. User networks, not value-chain businesses, will be the business models of distribution. This will allow parents, teachers and students to offer these teaching tools to other parents, teachers and students.

Teaching and curricular units would be modular (perhaps micro-curriculum or micro-learning is an appropriate model). The metaphors of tutoring as well as the successful models of Intuit’s quickbase as well as provide a fantastic conceptual building block for the creation of customized learning units.

These new models and constructs for learning will galvanize a new model and skill set for what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century. Christensen points out, “As modularity and customization reach a tipping point…teachers can serve as professional learning coaches and content architects to help individual students progress–and they can be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.” (p. 39) Christensen suggest the move toward more automated and diversified content will encourage teachers to take up roles as network sherpas rather than “sage on the stage” model (which is one of the cores of the banking model of education)

Christensen further sees a new role of (e-learning/internet) education technologist emerging in each school to facilitate the teacher’s new role. He forecasts, “This means that each school should have one person–and over time, and organization reporting to that person–whose sole job is to implement online courses.” (p. 227) Hopefully these technologists can help aggregate content and focus teachers efforts as they assemble top-notch customized online courses.

Models for Innovative Disruption in Education
Christensen identifies technologies and models that are currently being used which suggest a fruitful future for education technology in the American classroom. Christian points to virtual high school projects like Massachusetts-based Virtual High School, Georgia Virtual School, Florida’s Virtual School, and Utah’s Electronic High School. These high schools have a track record of successfully providing educational materials via technology and their lessons learned can be integrated with innovative educational models (KIPP, the Met, and High Tech High).

Christensen points to the success of Apex Learning the e-learning company which provides AP content for high school students and was formed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. He believes Apex, along with innovative models likeAgilize’s Brain Honey, Wireless Generation, Edu Fire, Immersive, Curriki which provides open source curriculum (the Global Education and Learning Community created by Sun Microsystems).

Drawing on the vision of these and other innovators a student centric curriculum can help insure that “all students can learn in the ways their individual minds are wired to learn.” (p. 86). That’s certainly a noble goal for educational reformers, teachers, philanthropists, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs for the 21st century. Let’s get started moving in that direction…Our collective imaginations (and the clouds) are our only limits…

Feel free to add your insight on educational reform, education disruptive innovation, education technology, or Disrupting Class in the comments section. Thanks for reading. Feel free to check out my other articles on e-learning.

Other Disrupting Class Resources

E-lluminate’s Steve Hargadon’s review of “Disrupting Class”
Disrupting Class (available for free on Google books)
Couros on Network Sherpas Model & the Future of Teaching with Technology
Virtual Schools and Virtual High School on Google Scholar



Leave a Comment
  1. Nathan Ketsdever / Sep 7 2009 6:14 pm

    Entrepreneurs, educators, and even policymakers interested in the intersection of education reform and technology should also check out the mode of Tutor Vista:

    Thanks to CK Prahalad, who covered this in his recent book “The New Age of Innovation” on mass customization using internet based platforms (software as service, cloud computing, and web 2.0 style social networking)

    Also, the nationally successful e- training company Pure Safety (Nashville, TN) who have multiple safety training classes (some as inexpensive as $10 I believe), as well as which offers niche classes across a range of business related skills at $75 per class offer unique models.
    (I don’t know how successful the later is, but the in person and virtual options are interesting)

  2. compassioninpolitics / Sep 26 2009 5:30 pm

    It’s interesting to point out that education technology in multiple forms (also journalism publication/search although those may be more interface and folksonomy driven) is on Paul Graham’s list of ideas he’d like to fund:

    >>>Online learning. US schools are often bad. A lot of parents realize it, and would be interested in ways for their kids to learn more. Till recently, schools, like newspapers, had geographical monopolies. But the web changes that. How can you teach kids now that you can reach them through the web? The possible answers are a lot more interesting than just putting books online.

    One route would be to start with test prep services, for which there’s already demand, and then expand into teaching kids more than just how to score high on tests. Another would be to start with games and gradually make them more thoughtful. Another, particularly for younger kids, would be to let them learn by watching one another (anonymously) solve problems.


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