Thursday, July 3, 2008

Book Review: Disrupting Class by Clayton M. Christensen

Despite years in the classroom, many teachers are constantly plagued by the creeping sense that they haven't got a clue what the hell they're doing. This feeling is offset somewhat by the number of theories, methodologies and exciting new ideas out there. They fill you with the hope that, finally, someone is going to distill all the vague notions into something effective and accessible.

But after years in the game, you inevitably come to the realization that every teacher has to develop their own synthesis from hours of practice, study and development. And yet it all still remains fuzzy and nebulous at times.

The ubiquitous nature of computers and the rapid development of new programs, software and ideas offer yet more possibilities and are especially tantalizing to the average language teacher. There must be some way to harness this technology, you repeatedly tell yourself. Maybe you create a blog for a class, have students submit assignments by e-mail or try to initiate an online discussion outside of class hours.

But in the end, your students end up using computers for little more than word processing and research.

The role of computers in the classroom and their potential for changing how people learn is the focus of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson.

The book uses the theory of disruptive innovation as an analogy for discussing the introduction and changing nature of technology in the U.S. education system. Disruptive innovation is an idea articulated and named by one of the same authors (Christensen) of this book. In contrast to sustaining innovation, which improves and builds on existing technology and caters to a current population of consumers, disruptive innovation is represented by new ideas whose only alternative is non-consumption.

One of the many examples presented in Disrupting Class is the advent of personal computers. When they first came on the scene, they were expensive, the technology was poor and the companies who manufactured mainframe super computers had no interest in diversifying. There was no short-term incentive and shifting their focus would have watered down their commitment to their existing customer base. And so, just as in numerous other examples, with few exceptions the start-up companies were the only ones to invest the necessary time and money. When the technology reached a tipping point, the "flip" seemed almost sudden and the companies that had not gotten involved in the early stages were wiped out.

Christensen and his coauthors use this premise to discuss the state of technology in the classroom and claim that the same type of flip will take place at some point in the future. They argue that numerous factors will conspire to make individual computer instruction tailored to each student's aptitudes the wave of learning within the next ten to fifteen years.

There are, of course, numerous differences between the worlds of business and education. However, the application of the disruptive innovation theory to the U.S. education system is very compelling. Just as non-consumption is one of the criteria that is present when disruptive innovation takes hold in the business world, so too it is evident in the areas where computer based learning is now gaining a foothold. For example, many special interest elective courses have been swept aside by various country-wide initiatives in the U.S. Computer learning is an ideal way to make up for this shortfall.

A less in-depth look at the issue would probably have left the future role of computers in schools as unspecific and claimed it was simply inevitable. But here there is a fairly detailed roadmap of how the authors believe the next few years will play out:

Within a few more years, however, two factors that were absent in stage 1 that are critical to the emergence of stage 2 will have fallen into place. 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.
Pointing to the businesses who failed to recognize the looming impact of new technology (for example, traditional camera makers Polaroid and Agfa, who were obliterated by the digital switchover) Christensen urges those working in the education field to recognize and prepare for changes. The final third of the book is prescriptive in nature and offers practical strategies for embracing the growing influence of computers in schools.

The book has a lot of good content and works on a few different levels. I believe that it succeeds in making a valid argument regarding the effect that technology will have on traditional schools and learning in the near future. While the focus is on the U.S. education system, the influence will apply to the wider world as well. For example, another area of non-consumption where online learning is already making a difference is for those who have neither the time nor finances to study for a Master's degree in a traditional setting.

The book also provides a good overview of the theory of disruptive innovation together with numerous historic examples. Also, for readers without a business background, there are straightforward explanations of concepts that are relevant to understanding other points being made.

The writing here is lean and to the point and results in a book that is readable and accessible. There isn't a strong or distinctive style that comes through nor is there any humour to speak of. Not requisites in a non-fiction book though those elements can sometimes create a more memorable final outcome. The ideas are what drive this book forward and it's clear that the authors have genuine enthusiasm and truly believe what they have written.

I could have done without a running fictional narrative that appeared at the beginning of each chapter and which was meant to illustrate many of the ideas being discussed. I found it fairly contrived though some may appreciate the attempt to dramatize the real world effects of the authors' predictions and hypotheses.

This is a relevant book for all teachers and those who have any kind of stake in the future of education systems throughout the world. While the timeframes and specific details of how computers will change the schools of tomorrow may vary, I have little doubt that much of what is stated in this book will come to pass.


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