Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Disruptive technology: online and blended learning

Chapter 2 of Clayton Christensen's book "Disrupting Class" outlines what disruptive technologies do to an established market.  The interesting thing to me is that Christensen states that almost all disruptions take root among non-consumers.  He gives several examples of this:  for example before the PC people didn't have computers in their home, before the transistor radio, teenagers didn't have music that they could carry around with them - these things were not replacing anything - they were starting completely new markets.  He writes that in education there has traditionally not been a "non-consumer":
Public education is set up as a public utility, and state laws mandate attendance for virtually everyone.  There was no large, untapped pool of non consumers that new school models could target.
He goes on to look at what has happened in education since computers have been put into schools and how this has led to little change in the way students learn because:
Most products that the ... educational software industry has produced attempt to teach students in the same ways that subjects have traditionally been taught in the classroom.  As a result, they have catered to the intelligence type that has been historically privileged in each subject.
The following chapter goes further to say that the investment in computers has "had little effect on how teachers teach and how students learn" because it had not developed students' intrinsic motivation through student-centric learning.  As I read on I came to see the difference between what Christensen refers to as a sustaining innovation (something that enhances what is already there - on the SAMR model this would be the S and the A) and a disruptive innovation (something which transforms the learning - the M and the R on the SAMR model).  Up to now computers have often simply been sustaining innovations that fit into the existing model of education being delivered in schools - they are seen as a tool to do what has always been done, but not as a way of customizing education to the different intelligences of the students.

Today as I was thinking about the implications of personalized learning, I came across this chart on Twitter by following a link from Edna Sackson to Barbara Bray's Rethinking Learning website (click here if you would like to download a copy of this chart)

Research by Larry Cuban has shown that classroom computers simply "sustain the traditional early childhood school model.  Computers have become just another activity center for children that they can opt to use in the course of the day ... teachers use them to supplement and reinforce the existing teaching model.  As such, computers add cost while failing to revolutionize the classroom experience."  In middle and high schools "teachers still deliver the instruction.  Students use computers primarily for word process, to search the internet for research papers."  He concludes:
In the end ... powerful software and hardware often get used in limited ways to simply maintain rather than transform prevailing instructional practices.
Christensen draws on these studies to write:
Computers have made almost no dent in the most important challenge that they have the potential to crack:  allowing student to learn in ways that correspond with how their brains are wired to learn, thereby migrating to a student-centric classroom ... Schools have crammed the computers into the existing teaching and classroom models.  Teachers have implemented computers ... to sustain their existing practices and pedagogies rather than to displace them.
However things are changing.  Over 10 years ago when I attended the AASSA Conference in Lima, Peru, I attended my first presentation about online learning called "Teach from the Beach" about courses that were being set up.  At the time these were simple computer-based learning classes that allowed students to learn at their own pace and maybe even to choose different ways of covering the material.  Around the same time I also enrolled in a couple of online professional development courses being run by Fieldwork Education in the UK to see for myself what it was like to learn online.   Today more than a million students in the USA are taking online classes and often these courses use software that can help students learn in ways that are consistent with their type of intelligence and learning styles.  Projections are that by 2019 about half of all high school courses will be delivered online.

Last month at ASB Un-Plugged, Brian Chanen presented the R&D Task Force findings about blended and online learning - as it is becoming clear that this is growing fast, the Task Force was asking how ASB could take advantage of it to combine face-to-face teaching with learning online, to extend education beyond the physical walls of the school.  Schools often do offer a limited number of online courses for example in subjects that are less popular, in a student's mother tongue if that language is not taught at the school, or to support a new student who is mid-way through a course that is not offered by the school.  Brian Chanen talked about wanting to extend this opportunity. 

The advantages of online learning, according to Christensen, are accessibility, convenience, simplicity and cost.  Often these courses are more enjoyable because they are more interactive, and therefore students are more motivated and engaged.  He writes that teachers will spend more time helping individual students and that their role will become more of a learning coach or tutor.  Teachers will need different skills in a customized classroom than in the one-size-fits-all one:  they "will have to understand differences in students and be able to provide individual assistance that is complementary to the learning model each student is using."  He estimates that currently in a "monolithic" class, 80% of a teacher's time is spent on preparation, teaching and testing the entire class, with only 20% of the time available for helping students individually.  Online learning will be a disruptive force in education, and many teachers will not be happy with this shift.  However:
This shift in the learning platform, if managed correctly - which means disruptively - is not a threat.  it is an opportunity.  Students will be able to work in the way that comes naturally for them.  Teachers can be learning leaders with time to pay attention to each student. 

Photo Credit:  Hagalund Church, Stockholm by Kah Wai Lin   AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works  

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