Sunday, June 13, 2010

Disruptive Innovation

"At every crossway on the road that leads to the future each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past." Maurice Maeterlinck

"Significant problems we have cannot be solved with the same level of thinking we were using when we created them." Albert Einstein

One of my favorite professional books is "Disrupting Class", by Christensen et. al. He writes about the theory of disruptive innovation. A disruptive innovation is a term used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically by lowering price or designing for a different set of consumers. He gives examples of disruptive innovations in the business world such as Apple computers, Google advertising, Sony's transistor technology and the Kodak camera. These companies introduced technology/innovations which were initially inferior to and different from existing technology. In industry, disruptive technologies need to be applied where the alternative is nothing. In time, the disruptive replaces the existing technology.

This book focuses on the U.S. education system, where he says $60 billion have been spent on technology in schools and there has been little change in how students learn. The main advantage of technology in schools according to the authors is improved capability for differentiated learning and student centered learning. They claim that since the Clinton administration, there has been little change in building students' intrinsic motivation through student centered learning. Innovation is not encouraged in schools. They say that schools are set up to sustain their existing practices and pedagogies (lecturing, group discussions, small group assignments, the occasional project) rather than replace them.

The authors describe computers in schools as disruptive technology. Even though they are currently not being used effectively they will eventually replace existing teaching technology. They give examples in the book of Florida Virtual Schools (FLVS), the state of Virginia and 25 states who have well developed on-line high school courses available in school. Indeed, the motto of FLVS is "any time, any place, any path, any pace".

They claim that in the U.S. by 2019, 50% of high school courses will be on-line. By 2024, 80% on-line. The tipping point for this disruptive technology will occur flip by 2012! They claim that this substitution of technologies will happen because computer based learning will improve, there will be better on-line learning pathways for students and teachers, there will be a teacher shortage (in 2007, 42% of teachers >50 years old) and the disruptive technology will decrease in cost.

Having said all that, they talk about what strategies have been used to date to use technology effectively in schools. All attempts to date to innovate schools using technology have failed. They authors spend some time explaining strategic planning in schools. Effective innovation in organizations is dependent on:

  1. the degree to which stakeholders agree on the end product,

  2. and also the degree to which they agree on the actions necessary to achieve the end product.

There was a lot of discussion about the management "tools of cooperation" such as leadership (vision and role modelling), culture (tradition), power (force), and management (training). As far as the authors were concerned, few of these tools have been effective as far as using technology transformatively in schools. They recommend that only two of the tools will work.

The first is separation. To innovate schools using technology we must develop charter schools and/or have separate on-line learning departments in existing schools. I believe in the idea of public schools with diverse populations but I do think that the existing school structure seems to be way to slow to adapt innovation. I am more comfortable with theme schools or public charter schools such as in our school division (ecoquest, dance academies, art schools).

The second tool of cooperation which the authors feel will be effective in educational innovation is power. This would be when a board or school administration dictated the necessity of the innovation being implemented and made it mandatory and linked to getting paid. I personally would prefer a grass roots movement based on necessity and passion!

This is a great read with challenging ideas. I agree with the authors in that if we are going to be innovative with technology in each of our schools or our divisions, we are going to have to:

  1. agree on a common definition of the problem

  2. hire and engage people who are ready to learn

  3. communicate about and build on our successes

Happy reading this summer!

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