Thursday, March 29, 2012

Disrupting schools - through the content and networks we create

Chapter 5 of Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen is all about using technology to make learning more student-centric.  Christensen writes about the two-stage process with any disruptive innovation:
Stage 1 - the product becomes cheaper and simpler to use (but not necessarily cheaper to produce)
Stage 2 - technological change makes the product simple and easy to build and upgrade.
How can these 2 stages be applied to the way technology will disrupt education?

Christensen believes that platforms are now emerging that will make it simpler to build computer learning products that cater for individual needs of students.  For example it's now easy to use apps such as the iBook Author to create content, it's also easy to create apps themselves.  It's easy to make screencasts and to publish movies on YouTube.  Christensen predicts that these products will be made and adopted by teachers, parents and students in a very decentralized way first of all but that very quickly this will disrupt the traditional system of creating educational materials.  Once teachers can create their own textbooks and apps or find those that have been created and shared by others, they are more in control of the decisions about what to teach and how to teach it.

Christensen discusses 3 business models and shows how education traditionally fits into them:
Solution shops:  these businesses employ experts to diagnose problems and recommend solutions.  They are very dependent on the people who work there, and because each problem needs an individual solution it's hard for these to be standardized.  He gives the example of physicians as a solution shop.  An example in education could be special education teachers who diagnose and support individual students with learning difficulties.  Most students, however, don't experience this individualized approach.
Value-chain businesses:  this is more like the factory model, bringing in different inputs and transforming them into products of greater value.  Generally these involve standardized processes.  Many schools operate in this way, with students joining a class at the start of a year, learning the content and skills for that grade and then moving onto the next grade at the end of the year.  In this system experts create the textbooks which lay out the concepts to be taught and often how to teach them, curriculum experts decide which textbooks to buy, teachers deliver the content to the students and students are assessed on how well they have learned it.  Teacher training institutions reinforce this model as they prepare teachers for this monolithic system. (It amazes me how the young teachers I meet who have come straight from the USA or UK have no experience of actually writing curriculum themselves - they are used to a system that mandates what the curriculum will be and what resources will be used to teach it - as such they often struggle initially with the PYP framework where they have to develop units of inquiry collaboratively.)
Facilitated user networks:  these are services that people exchange with each other, for example telecommunications and insurance.  It is the  network that brings buyers and sellers together.

Although international schools where I've worked don't follow Christensen's 6 step process for developing, adopting and using instructional materials, I do appreciate that in many national systems state schools fit this model exactly.  Starting with textbooks, which represent the content of a subject that students need to know, the books define the key concepts and the sequence in which they are taught.  As mentioned before, the instructional materials are mostly developed by those and taught by those with a dominant intelligence type that is suitable to the subject.  Students learn differently, but up to now it has not really been possible for textbook publishers to develop different books for each different type of intelligence.

The model continues with curriculum experts at schools who make decisions about which programs/books to adopt - again these are often materials that teach to one dominant intelligence in each subject.  These curriculum experts also take into consideration standardized tests - materials that don't prepare students for these often don't get adopted.  Throughout this process students are treated as if they are all the same.  Teachers have only a very limited amount of time to offer individual help to students in this model or to customize what and how they learn.

Bring in technology - the disruptive force in all this.  Unlike textbooks, software can easily have different pathways for different learners and can adapt to the different pace at which students learn.  Christensen sees the possibility of this type of software, but notes that it has often been added into the current system, and is therefore limited by it.  It's becoming more and more common for schools to offer online education, for example if students want to take a course that is not offered at the school - however these courses will probably look very similar to the face-to-face courses already taught.  The real disruption, he argues, will not be from commercially produced software or courses but from user-generated content distributed through the user network.  The tools for this learning are simple and both teachers and students will be able to build products or tutorials that help other students - one example of resources that teachers could use could be the Khan Academy that states on its website:
We're a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.
Using similar sorts of resources, teachers will be able to draw together whole courses based on small modules that others have created and that are basically offered for free.  Different modules can be appropriate for different learners - leading to a truly student-centric approach with each student having access to a virtual tutor.  Students who develop these tools and create content benefit too - studies show that teaching someone to do something is often the best way of learning how to do it - and these students are using their dominant intelligence type to do this, and therefore reaching other students with the same type of intelligence.

Disrupting education will come from the bottom up and I believe, like Christensen, that this will completely transform learning.

Photo Credit:  Face flower by Alice Hardman, 2007   AttributionNo Derivative Works

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