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Disruption and Early Adopters in Education

Is there anything truly disruptive in education? To a teacher, "disruptive" has the negative sound of that kid in the back row who is ruining your class. Disruptive technologies are innovations that upset the existing order of things, often in a good way.

It's an idea that comes from the business section of the bookshelves. Typical scenario: a lower-end innovation catches the fancy of the public, for example, Internet video like YouTube. It might suit the needs of people who are not being served by current products - like young people with commercial television. It it succeeds over a long enough period, the capacity/performance of the innovation begins to displace the established product. People stop watching traditional TV.

The real problem for the incumbent technology (often a big company - a Microsoft, a Blackboard) is that they often don’t react to these disruptive innovations until it’s too late. Why would they do that? Part of it is that they view this new market as rather uninteresting because it is low end, low cost and perhaps low profit.

Sometimes the disruptor isn't a small company. Look at the idea that Google is disrupting the office-productivity application software business of something like the Microsoft Office package by making its applications free and available on the Net cloud.

Is there a disruptive technology in education?  Educators might nominate cloud computing or collaborative tools.

What got me thinking about this line of questioning was a book I was reading while having a coffee at my local Barnes & Noble. (SIDENOTE: Has anyone else noticed how B&N stores with a cafe are turning into libraries? There are people there with a stack of the store's books, their notebook, a laptop and they are working. Is this a good business model for a bookstore?)

When I look at a technology like cloud computing and a service like Google Apps, I conclude that people are not using Apps because it is better than Microsoft Office. They aren't better. They use them because - Is it because they are free? Maybe. I use Apps, but I already have Office for free from my employer.

So, that book I picked up in the store was The Innovator's Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business written by Clayton M. Christensen.

Christensen coined the term "disruptive technology" in a 1995 article which he coauthored with Joseph Bower and his book is aimed at managers rather than educators. When he wrote a sequel, The Innovator's Solution, he replaced "disruptive technology" with the term "disruptive innovation" because he says few technologies are intrinsically disruptive or sustaining in character.

Christensen might say that some people use Google Apps because of "low-end disruption." The service works for users who do not need the full performance valued by customers at the high-end of the market.

YouTube might be considered a "new-market disruption" because its target audience (though I'm not sure some of these technologies actually knew who their target audience was when they started) are people who felt their needs weren't being served by the existing technology. The Linux operating system (OS) when it was first introduced wasn't "better" than existing systems (like UNIX and Windows NT) but it was cheap and pretty good. Today, after many improvements, Linux might actually end up displacing the commercial UNIX distributions. Is Microsoft afraid? Even if they are not, they better be paying attention.

In education, I can't say that I see one "killer app" that is so widely used that it has dethroned a king or queen. Yes, 16mm projectors were pushed into AVA closets by the VHS players and then by the DVD players. Has streaming video pushed out the DVD? Is that a disruptive innovation or is it just video in new delivery systems?

I'm not alone in thinking about disruption in educational terms. There's actually a paper by Christensen, Aaron, and Clark from the EDUCAUSE 2001 Forum for the Future of Higher Education called "Disruption in Education."

Christensen’s theory, developed in the corporate realm, is based on the constant pursuit of excellence by both businesses and higher education institutions. As the quality of products increases, they often surpass the needs of their consumers, leaving a gap to be filled by a disruptive innovation (a product or service of lower quality or performance that more closely matches consumers’ needs). Other features make the innovation appealing as well, such as being cheaper, simpler, and more convenient to use. Early adopters of the disruptive technology or service most often are the least demanding customers in a market.

That last sentence catches me. Early adopters are the least demanding. They say: "The video quality isn't anywhere near as good as a DVD - but it works and it's free. Google Docs doesn't have all the features of Word - but I don't use most of the Word features anyway and with Docs I can collaborate on a document online easily and never even have to email a file or carry a flashdrive copy of the file."

Look at the early adopters in your school: the ones who are trying out Second Life or signed up to pilot Moodle while everyone else was in Blackboard or were the first ones to try a podcast, create a wiki, or have a blog for class. If they really were early in their adoption, they were probably willing to accept some shortcomings in the technology innovation because they also saw the potential.

How Disrupted Is Education?

track disruption

I had bookmarked a post last fall on emergingedtech.com about digital disruption and it got me wondering about just how disruptive some recent "disruptors" have actually been to education. The article lists six: Delivery, Flipped Classroom, Tools Available, Micro-credentialing, Competency-Based Education (CBE) and Learning Science.

You can argue with their six choices, but they are all disruptors. I might have added others, such as Open Education Resources, including MOOC, but I suppose that might fall under "delivery" too. 

In 2012, when I was deep into MOOCland, I read The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside OutIt is co-written by Clayton Christensen, who is considered "the father of the theory of disruptive innovation." His previous books include The Innovator's Dilemma, which examined business innovation, and The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators

After four decades as an educator, I would say that education in general gets disrupted rather slowly, but here are some thoughts on these disruptions. Are we talking about disruption in K-12 or higher education, or in the whole of educations.

By DELIVERY, they are including, and probably focused on, online delivery. The US DOE reported back in 2012 that 1 in 4 students has taken some or all of their courses online, and that figure is predicted to grow steadily. In higher ed, online learning is firmly in place. It disrupted, and now the waters have calmed. In K-12, the disruption is still to come.

The FLIPPED CLASSROOM was big a few years ago in K-12. It never really caught on or was part of the conversation in higher ed. It's not gone and it is still being tweaked and studied. This idea of  on continues to expand. The annual Horizons Report for 2015 predicted this would have widespread adoption immediately, but that didn't happen.

Certainly the number and VARIETY OF TOOLS available to educators has grown and continues to grow every week. Viewed as an umbrella of tools, they are more disruptive than any individual tool. We have seen many predictions that adaptive learning tools, VR and AR, 3D printing and other tools would radically change they way we teach. None of them have "changed everything."

Maybe you're seeing a pattern in my responses. There hasn't been a major disruption. When I wondered four years ago who was really being disrupted in higher ed, I was thinking about what a University 2.0 might mean. I have the larger category on this blog of Education 2.0. We definitely moved into Web 2.0 after only a few decades, but after a few centuries education is beyond 1.0 but not over the line into a major change that I would consider 2.0. 

I do believe that things like MICRO-CREDENTIALING, CBE and the growth of LEARNING SCIENCE will change things. Combined, all these disruptors will certainly move us closer to that Education 2.0.

Beyond micro-credentialing, I see an entire reconsideration of credits and degrees as the biggest disruption to traditional education (as opposed to learning). Will movements like the Lumina Foundation's framework for “connecting diverse credentials” unite (or divide) non-traditional sources like MOOC courses and professional development training?

That leads right into Competency Based Education. The Department of Education (which plays a much bigger role in K-12) seems to be very serious about CBE.  This is big disruption of the centuries old clock hours and seat time for credits towards degrees. 

LEARNING SCIENCE that is deepening what we know about how we learn, and the relationship between different tools, may have a bigger impact on pedagogy than on how a school looks when you walk into a classroom. 

Maybe the Internet or "technology" should be the disruptor we point to that changed education as it touches all of these other disruptors. 

UMass MOOC Features Adaptive Technology

If you've ever been in a course and struggled because you just aren't "getting it," the reason might be less your ability than the way in which the material is being presented. New technology is now allowing online course environments to analyze how individual students learn, customizing instruction to individualized learning strategies.

The College of Advancing and Professional Studies (CAPS) at the University of Massachusetts Boston has teamed up with USDLA 21st Century Sponsor, Synaptic Global Learning (SGL), to use the new learning management system, Adaptive Mobile Online Learning (AMOL), to deliver the first adaptive Massive Online Open Course (a-MOOC) ever offered.

The course, launched March 25, is Molecular Dynamics for Computational Discoveries In Science," and is taught by Nishikant Sonwalkar, a scientist, academician and adjunct professor of physics at UMass Boston. Sonwalkar, who teaches on both the graduate and undergraduate level, has a long history of success as an educational innovator. His company, Synaptic Global Learning, sought UMass Boston as a partner to leverage UMB's reputation for excellence in eLearning design and to extend UMB's mission as a public university. Sonwalkar and SGL are providing use of the AMOL learning platform cost-free to UMass Boston, and the course is open to anyone with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world, at no charge.




"It is about eliminating the fear and frustration so many experience as they learn," says Sonwalkar. "The course name alone might scare off some, but the MOOC assumes no prior knowledge and virtually will hold the students' hands as they go through the materials, analyzing learning strategies then adapting a teaching approach to raise each student's level of success. This accessible MOOC is the first of its kind."

"MOOCs are popping up all over the country, from the most prestigious colleges and universities to smaller schools," says Alan Girelli, the Director of the Center for Innovation and eLearning at CAPS. "What's unique is that this MOOC employs brain-based adaptive learning technology to teach each learner as he or she learns best."

Sonwalkar adds that "one size does not fit all" but he maintains that "changing the pedagogy as we've done within our Adaptive Mobile Online platform will result in higher completion rates and faster learning."

For more course information: http://umb.sgleducation.com/AdaptiveMOOC/NishMD/

Disruptive Education

Over the break, I was reading The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out and it fits very nicely into my current thinking about the evolution of School 2.0 in the next few decades. 

It is co-written by Clayton Christensen, which is what initially caught my eye. He is considered "the father of the theory of disruptive innovation." His previous books include The Innovator's Dilemma, which examined business innovation, and The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.  

The Innovative University is at first an analysis of the traditional university that we know in order to get at its "DNA" which then leads to the how (and why) higher education needs to change to have any future success.

From the book jacket: "The language of crisis is nothing new in higher education—for years critics have raised alarms about rising tuition, compromised access, out of control costs, and a host of other issues. Yet, though those issues are still part of the current crisis, it is not the same as past ones. For the first time, disruptive technologies are at work in higher education. For most of their histories, traditional universities and colleges have had no serious competition except from institutions with similar operating models. Now, though, there are disruptive competitors offering online degrees. Many of these institutions operate as for-profit entities, emphasizing marketable degrees for working adults. Traditional colleges and universities have valuable qualities and capacities that can offset those disruptors' advantages—but not for everyone who aspires to higher education, and not without real innovation. How can institutions of higher education think constructively and creatively about their response to impending disruption? 

Throughout the book Christensen and Eyring show what it takes to apply Christensen's acclaimed model of disruptive innovation to a higher education environment. The Innovative University explores how universities can find innovative, less costly ways of performing their uniquely valuable functions and thereby save themselves from decline." 

Disruptive innovation, a term of art coined by Clayton Christensen, describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then moves "up market" to eventually displace the established form. 

Examples of disruptive innovation include cellular phones disrupting fixed line telephony, and the traditional full-service department store being disrupted by online and discount retailers. Christensen also sees an earlier disruptor of the four-year college experience as being community colleges.

I agree with him that companies tend to innovate faster than their customers’ lives change - newer phones but customers who don't want to upgrade yet - and so most organizations end up producing products or services that are actually too good and too expensive for many of their customers. 

But I don't think that model works for education. 

In education, customers/students innovate faster than the schools. They have the technology in their hands before we have it or a way to use it in our classrooms. And yet, schools continue to charge too much for an inferior product. 

I wish I believed that education was consciously opening the door to “disruptive innovations,” but that is not what I see.  

Christensen teaches at the Harvard Business School. Although he has had health issues the past few years, he continues to write and I discovered that he has a newer book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, that I will need to order. 

It seems that in education, Christensen and the other authors are pointing to "student-centric education" as the disruptor of our current "interdependent curricular architecture." Much of that is made possible through technology. 

He has written about online learning for student-centered innovation and many educators and institutions will be pleased to hear that disruptive technology/innovation in education can help create a new market and value network. 

They will be less pleased to know that it eventually goes on to disrupt the existing market and eventually displaces it. 

Disruptive ideas improves a product or service in ways that the market does not expect. Those services will be designed for a different set of consumers. It will probably lower the cost in the existing market. That might translate into the new, improved School 2.0 made for Student 2.0. And all at a lower cost. But who will be providing that education? Harvard, NJIT, Passaic County Community College, MITx, University of Phoenix, The Open University, Google, Facebook or some new entity that doesn't even exist today?

Books by Clayton M. Christensen

Harvard Online

2 Harvard Business School 036

The question posed in a NY Times article recently was "Should Harvard Business School enter the business of online education, and, if so, how?" I was surprised that they had not done online education already. Then again, it is Harvard - old and solid and, like many a university going back a decade or two, wondering if going online weakens the brand.

I don't really know that many universities that haven't gone online to some degree, and all of them first considered what the effect would be on their reputation and on their on-campus education. Then again, you don't want to risk being left behind either.


The elite Harvard Business School seems to be trying to have it both ways. They have a new type of credential called the Credential of Readiness, or CORe, which students can take online.

Harvard has been doing MOOCs with edX, so is this really a big risk? Maybe.

The article references Clayton Christensen whose 1997 book, The Innovator's Dilemmaand The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out both got him a lot of attention. There were many articles about “disruptive innovation” and this latest article says that rival business schools (Stanford and the Wharton School) have been doing that with their massive open online courses. Offering MOOCs, free of charge to anyone, anywhere in the world doesn't seem to have destroyed their programs.

How do you place a value on having one of your professors reaching a million students? Does it dilute the value or make it grow?

Christensen's advice to Harvard is “Do it cheap and simple. Get it out there.”  But cheap and simple had never been the Harvard Business School way.

This week they launch HBX which doesn't compete with their MBA, but is a "pre-M.B.A."


"When we set out to create HBX, our mission was simple: To use technology to enhance our potential to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. We started with 100 plus years of experience in business education. We then sprinkled in every technological tool we had at our disposal. Finally, we mixed in the most critical ingredient of all, what we consider to be our secret sauce: our very own faculty, people who have spent their lives in passionate pursuit of excellence in teaching and learning.

With HBX, you'll discover that the digital learning tools are a means to an end. That doesn't mean we haven't tried to deploy these tools in a creative and ambitious way; on the contrary, we've poured hours into the conception of these learning instruments. However, the real focus has been on creating a learning experience that brings business education to life. At HBX, we believe that education should be cerebral, yes, but it should also be riveting, kinetic, social, and mind-bending. It should be a series of unanticipated discoveries that change your capacity to navigate the world. "