When I first read about Christensen's ideas, their relevance to education was immediately obvious to me. It was obvious to them, too, because in 2008, Christensen and two collaborators published Disrupting Class, in which they applied the theory of disruptive innovation to public schools in the United States. I've finally gotten around to reading that book.
The theory of disruptive innovation remains, I think, a powerful framework for understanding how economic sectors, including education, can be transformed by new technologies. It's true that Christensen and his colleagues seem to be walking back some of their boldest predictions. In Disrupting Class, they predict half of high school classes will be online by 2019, with that number rising to 80 percent by 2024. More recently, however, in their recent report, "Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive?" Christensen and his collaborators suggest that technology will be strongly disruptive only at the middle and high school levels, and even then, only in the very long term. Despite those caveats, however, they remain committed to their core analysis, and I think they may be right. And I have to say I'm not completely pleased about that.
A new vision for assessment
It's not that the vision they paint in Disrupting Class is so dystopian. For example, I quite like their vision for assessment. The foresee that technology will enable us to do away with our model of "fixed time, variable learning." Under our current system, due to the rigidity that comes from the non-customizable nature of education today, all students study a topic for the same amount of time, then take the same assessment. For example, my students might all spend four weeks studying the American Revolution. At the end of that time, and only then, they'll all be assessed. It doesn't matter if some students were able to master the material in three weeks. It doesn't matter if some students still haven't mastered the material. Everyone takes the test at the same time, even if their levels of learning are different. Thus, "fixed time, variable learning."
The authors of Disrupting Class think technology will enable a system of "variable time, fixed learning." Students will have customizable learning programs. If a student masters a topic, she can test out of it, and move on to the next topic without having to wait for other students to catch up. It's rather like the skills tree I wrote about in an earlier post. Strong students don't have to get bored waiting for weaker students to get caught up. Weaker students don't have to get frustrated when class pushes ahead, even if they're not ready.
It's an appealing vision, as I note in my piece about teaching skills. And technology may indeed make it possible. To some extent it already has--Duolingo is pretty much what they have in mind, at least at a basic level.
That extreme subjectivity--for that's what I think is ultimately at the base of that anti-elitism--comes out in other ways, as well. For example, they see the future of customizable education in "user networks"--facilitated networks in which users will generate the content and make it available for others to pick and chose what works best of them. To me, this vision has major flaws. First, there is the question of quality. If Duolingo is an example of "variable time" learning, then the language website Livemocha seems to be a model for "user networks." While the basic framework is put up by the site, much of the content comes from users--users comment on lessons, and provide each other feedback. For a free site, it's not bad. But it's hardly of the same quality as a French class. Indeed, I found it less helpful than Duolingo. So one problem with the "user networks" idea is the quality of the material that will be put up on these networks. But of course, if you discount expert knowledge, you are sure to think that "the people" can put up information that is just as valuable as a so-called "expert."
Now, it's certainly true that knowledge is not limited to experts, just as it's true that I did in fact learn some French on Livemocha. There's actually a more serious problem behind this "user networks" idea--who is going to pay for all this? The authors themselves note that in user networks "participation in the network typically isn't the primary profit engine for participants." In other words, all those people putting materials up on the web aren't making any money off of it. But then how do they make money to actually live? Is Facebook the future of education--"the people"--create the content for free, while the owners of the network make the profit? Are we all to be "digital serfs"?
Just this week I was working with colleagues on putting together a website for our school to guide our students in research. Using our own research cycle as the framework, we were able to comb the web and come up with a variety of excellent materials about how to do research (for example, I highly recommend the University of Toronto site). But almost invariably, these sites were put up by schools and by the people employed there. In other words, the materials could be free only because the creators of the material were being paid for their work in traditional education. If we disrupt traditional education out of existence, how will they eat? And if they can't eat, how will they be able to write all that great free material?
Learning together/Learning apart
I was also troubled by how their implicit praise of subjectivity and individualism plays out in their vision for fully-disrupted education: each learner has his own personalized learning plan, assembled from various components pulled off these user networks. It seems to be a world in which students learns on their own, at their own computers. True, they are still together in the same room, and they still can help each other and interact. But it seems like much of the social aspect of learning is gone.
Society as a frictionless machine
Most troubling, however, was their vision for education as a business, or perhaps as a machine. In the business model, the boss gives orders and the underlings follow orders. In the machine, all the parts work smoothly together to produce output. In either case, should work smoothly and run without friction.
From this point of view, the fundamental problem with the current system is that people and groups keep getting in my way. Experts tell me what to think. Unions block the reforms I think we need. Other students slow me down and keep me from learning. If only we could eliminate that troublesome friction that comes from interacting with other people!
That, presumably, is why the authors suggest that democracy is incompatible with real reform. That, presumably, is why their ultimate solution to education reform is what they call "separation." Interest groups getting in your way? Teachers unions a problem? Parent groups being troublesome? Just leave them all behind and set up your own school where you can do what you want. Because in the end, nothing should get in the way of me expressing my individuality.
There is a paradox behind their book: they want to create unity around individuality. They want us all to agree--and all of us to be different. We are unified in that we don't get in each other's way, and we are therefore "free" to express our own individuality with no interference from others. In Zamyatin's dystopic novel We, people live in glass apartments so the entirety of their lives is open to public view. All is collective, nothing is individual. Disrupting Class seems to push in the opposite direction: learning is all individual, nothing is collective. They don't push it as far as Zamyatin's novel does--that's why there is much to like in what they write--but that tone of unrestrained individualism creeps in sometimes.
But people are people, and society is not a machine. Friction is an inevitable part of living with others, and any approach to education, and educational reform, must take into account the messy but also wonderful world of human sociability.