Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Real Disruptive Innovation

This morning I listened to Kim Ross, principal of Minnesota's first online high school, give a keynote speech to a group of educators in Southeast Minnesota. I can't say that he said anything that we have not heard before. It was a good talk about how the world is changing and about how online education allows for teachers to individualize instruction and focus more on relationships with their students. He gave a general overview of the theory of disruptive innovation in education and drew special attention to how this individualization of instruction made possible by online learning was the disruptive force, not the technology.

In the past few years schools have been looking at online education as a major disruptive force. We have seen exponential growth in enrollment in online schools and as a result a lot of our traditional brick and mortars have seen a decline. It has been widely thought, and I must confess that for a long time I have counted myself among those holding this belief, that schools need to modify their programs to draw upon what is happening in online education to improve what they do and make instruction more individualized. In answer to this we have seen a slew of measures taken by traditional school systems in an attempt to capitalize on this theory and retain students. Many schools have tried offering their own online courses, others have invested heavily in technologies like interactive whiteboards with the thought that if only they made the presentation of class theatrics more visually appealing students would be more engaged, and other schools have experimented with hybrid courses which are primarily online courses augmented with periodic face to face meetings.

None of these solutions ever really felt right to me but I have only recently been able to make enough sense of what I have been thinking to articulate it. Perhaps the rise in enrollment in online schools has very little to do with the quality of education they offer and more to do with declining relevance of schools in general. I have noticed and I have spoken with many teachers who have observed that in the past few years student motivation to meet deadlines, to attain a good grade, and to complete all of their work has been on the decline. What worked to motivate students to "achieve" five years ago isn't working today for a large percentage of our students. "Its like they don't care if they pass my class."

What has changed in the past five years? What are kids doing today that they were not doing, or able to do before? What they are doing is learning. They are learning on their own in ways that were not really possible before. Through highly engaging Montessori-like online learning environments like YouTube, Flickr, fansite forums, Myspace, Facebook, etc. they are learning deeply about the things that interest them and are relevant to them. The scale has shifted to a point where the technologies available to learn deeply about anything online on your own has in large part outperformed what our school pedagogies and our school systems can compete with.

To illustrate this, take the following video as an example. What is this kid doing in this video? How is he using the technology to aid in his learning? Does he need school to help him learn? What is the broad implication of this? It is worth seeing this video on the YouTube page and reading through the comments he has received (click here).

Do online schools do this? No, not really, but what they do is offer a credential just like students can get at a traditional brick and mortar, only online allows a student to endure the arduous and tedious task of schooling at their own pace and in their own time. Online schools allow students the ability to let their own interest-driven learning to take a front seat and take top priority. The asynchronous nature of the majority of online instruction means that it is not getting in the way of the learning activities that are really meaningful to kids. It is not that online learning or individualized instruction in an online school are so much better than that which students receive face to face in a traditional brick and mortar, it is that online schools don't get in the way.


Mrs. Tenkely said...

I wonder if we won't see the idea of apprenticeship or discipleship come back into society instead of the formal schooling model that has been adopted. It seems that this would be a good way for students to learn deeply about what they are passionate about in a meaningful way.

Carl Anderson said...

I think, in a way, that is what we are seeing now with online forums, social media, and the like.

Hall Jackson said...

In my city we are starting to see the emergence of the "community shed". Due to urban infill men are losing their sheds and garages so there are now these community sheds being set up where blokes can go and'make' things. It is also a place you can go and learn new skills from other people. There are rules of course, one of them is if you make something you have to make it again for the shed to sell so they can buy more materials.

You can see this as a communuity based "school" or even a glimpse back in time of a proto school before formalisation.

The net gives us an opportunity to have a world shed. But as you can see we like to physically group ourselves too. The school should be a place for us to do that.

Carl Anderson said...

I love the community shed as a model for school. It reminds me of the work Dave Engers does with kids after school. Problem is state and federal mandates/expectations seem to be at odds with what is really needed. The community shed model celebrates individual interests and tallents while state standards and the belief that all students should graduate school with the same proficiencies forces homogeneity. I keep thinking that what really needs to happen is a shift in how we define "student achievement." Perhaps it should be defined differently for different students.

Dan McGuire said...

I really like this post and thread. Y'all are articulating what I've been seeing and feeling in the classroom.

Jacqueline Heber said...

Carl Anderson says that what we may really need is a shift in how we define student achievement. I think this is worth thinking about...more now than ever.
However, I am not one who feels we should throw out the old to make way for the new.

Techchucker said...

I've often had the same thought that students just don't care if they pass or fail a class. I don't know that it is due to how information is brought to students,though. The same feeling is felt when it comes to students breaking the rules. They just don't care. I think the two are linked closer than most would be willing to accept.

I truly believe, if you ask yourself what has changed it is a lack of discipline that causes students to not care, not that they can't learn in the traditional means or even that they don't want to.

In the end the majority of people can learn in any method you give them. They can't learn if they have no true motivation to succeed. Parents have too low of expectations and so do educators. Change the expectations and you change your students. Change your pedagogy and you change nothing.

D. Cox said...

Very interesting thoughts and questions, and I loved that video link.

For my 2 cents, I'd just say that something is missing from how we look at this "new student" or new kind of learner. The young boy in the video is clearly engaged and learning and inquiring and growing and all the great things we try to foster in schools... but what's in the background of that video? Where is he? At home? Like when is this, on a weekend or after school? Does he do this all day? Presumably somebody takes after him, supervises him, encourages him, provides resources and stimuli and support, as well as social interaction and engagement, physical and emotional security and safety, etc etc etc... Right now, our schools provide all of this (more or less) for at least 7 or 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, to the majority of our children. Without the brick and mortar, the online environment can replace much of our curricula, but it can't replace so much else that schools provide. Computers, on their own, make as poor teachers as they do parents, I think.

I teach outdoor education - which has a particular relevance to that young boy and his video. I think it would be easy to forget that someone, at some point, had to foster within that child an interest in "bushcraft" - someone took him on hikes and camp-outs, showed him survival skills, etc., and THEN he could take the initiative to look things up in books and online and practice in his yard at home on a sunday morning. A very different story from a boy left to spend 10 hours a week fixated on a computer screen, alone, learning only through an 'online' medium... Whoever cultivated that boy's interest in wilderness bushcraft, may not have done so in a brick-n-mortar classroom, but neither was it done through an online digital medium.

Just a thought, as we consider the whole value of our physical schools and their learning environments...

Great post and thread though!


Jan said...

In reply to DC's comment: to give a bit of context to the boy in the video, he's my son, Nelson. The video was made on his own two years ago when he was 12. He did the editing himself on Windows Movie Maker. He got some instruction from me during past "projects" but also from YouTube videos he searched out on his own. I helped him upload it. The tagging part was about all I had to teach him.

He filmed it in our backyard, I believe it was on a school night after dinner. He had tried previous fires a bit closer to our back door which caused a bit of angst, but this one was attempted away from the building. We live a suburban setting but we are 15 minutes to wilderness so Nelson has done a fair amount of camping. The woods around his elementary school were a favourite hang-out; I think the green space has been essential to developing his interest in nature. Also important is our love of the outdoors and interest in natural history. Nelson also used (and still does use) YouTube as a primary learning source. He hunted for and found sites on bushcraft and survival. Then he begged his dad to go to the woods where he tried and failed to get a fire started.

Nelson is in a regular public school and has benefit from all the good that the model offers. As a teacher myself I have never been under the illusion that the education of my son was only the school's responsibility. We share it, but it is primarily Nelson's job. If he has a passion we encourage him to follow it. This is why bowdrills are on the shelf for now and painting with water colours, proper playing technique on the tenor sax, making bows and arrows, and solving obstacles in video games has taken over. Passions shift in young people. This defies programing.

YouTube is often his first stop when he wants to know something. This includes "school" topics like how viaducts affected the development of Roman civilization and how digestion works. Sadly, YouTube is blocked in our district.

Nelson's school teachers do matter to him and they have more than once ignited his curiosity. However, most would be surprised to know that he learns so much online. For the most part his technology experiences have been fairly flat (go to this site and do x, or make a video that shows y), but this is slowly improving.

Thanks, Carl for your post. Nelson is ready to shut down comments to the video as "it is so last year", but I have encouraged him to keep it open as an experiment in the good of the network. So many comments on YouTube make me gag, but the comments are so generous and will be a great resource to him when he finally gets back to exploring bow drills and fire starting again.

*Thanks @bookminder for pointing me to this :)

Carl Anderson said...


I would like to respond to your assertion that, "Without the brick and mortar, the online environment can replace much of our curricula, but it can't replace so much else that schools provide. Computers, on their own, make as poor teachers as they do parents, I think."

Online education is about far more than just student-machine interaction. Online schools have more in common with traditional schools than they do with Skinner's box []. Students in online school have daily interaction with actual teachers and actual students. Just because they are not in the same room doesn't mean they are not responsive or have an impact. Sure the nature of their relationship is different and in some ways I agree that it is inferior but in other ways it is far better. Online schooling is more about communication and interaction than it is about the platform.


Thank you so much for your comment and the insight you bring to this discussion. I hope your son knows how important his video is and the impact it can potentially have on education. I would be interested in learning about other ways he has used YouTube and other social media in his own learning. I think your assessment of the situation is spot on. We need both formal and informal learning. The only question is how do they work together. How can we in formal institutions of learning support powerful experiences of informal learning and how can we provide those experiences for students who don't have equal access?