December 12, 2017

The Tipping Point to Personal Learning – Part 1

According to the authors of the very important book Disrupting Class, 2012 is the year in which the logarithmic curve of computer-based learning consumption “tips” — i.e., hits the “elbow” and begins to gobble up increasingly large chunks of conventional schooling. By 2019, the authors project, “50% of high school courses will be delivered online.” By 2024, “80% of courses… will have been taught online in a student-centric way.” (fn 1)

This is big.

A quick review of disruptive innovation theory, the basis for this projection: The authors (Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson — economists, not educators, who have more than a decade of work in this area report that most innovations are “sustaining;” a sustaining innovation increases the efficiency or effectiveness of what an organization does and boosts the consumption of its products or services. For example, assembly line production. The occasional “disruptive” innovation actually creates a whole new market — a new wave of products and services that appeal to completely new consumers. Examples include transistor radios and personal computers. (fn 2)

In Disrupting Class the authors claim that the disruptive innovation now occurring in public K-12 education is the shift “from teacher-delivered to software-delivered instruction.” This shift is occurring in two stages:

(1) computer-based learning, in which proprietary instructional software and online curricula will be used to instruct kids in pretty much the “monolithic” way that schooling is now conducted;

(2) student-centric technology, in which self-managed software will “help students learn each subject in… ways that are customized for them.” (fn 3)

Disruptive innovations consistently create S-shaped substitution curves. (fn 4) “[T]he initial substitution pace is slow; then it steepens dramatically; and, finally, it asymptotically approaches 100 percent of the market.” (fn 5) 

Ultimately, the disrupted organization or industry is destroyed. The only organizations that “survive” are the ones that essentially re-invent themselves; in other words, the organization’s name is about the only thing that remains. (fn 6) So, the authors project, despite schooling’s continual improvement throughout the 20th century and into the 21st (fn 7), “software-delivered instruction” will destroy public K-12 education — at least destroy the institution that we identify as public education

From Free Range, by Bill Whitehead

Exactly what the new forms of education will look like is unclear. But if – as seems likely – the DI model applies, within a decade we’ll be doing school in completely new ways.

What new ways? No schools? No school districts? No teachers? Well, the authors of DC have some thoughts on this. And so do I. Next post.

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fn 2 – DC, p. 47:  “A disruptive innovation is not a breakthrough improvement. Instead of sustaining the traditional improvement trajectory in the established plane of competition, it disrupts that trajectory by bringing to the market a product or service that actually is not as good as what companies historically had been selling. …[B]y making the product affordable and simple to use, the disruptive innovation benfits people who had been unable to consume the…product — people we call ‘nonconsumers’.” Transistors, for example, weren’t powerful enough to run the large radios (and televisions) that served as the household entertainment centers from 1920 to 1970. But transistors opened a wholly new market — portable entertainment that one could take to the park or commuting on the bus. Other examples: Personal computers (vs. mainframes), the iPod (vs. CD players), or “Ask Chuck” stock purchasing (vs. brokerages). 

fn 3 – DC, pp. 91-92.
fn 4 – The S-curve of substitution shown below is from p. 97 of DC.
fn 5 – The quoted text is from DC, p. 96. See pp. 76-81 of DC for three case studies of disrupted companies — RCA (electronics), Merrill Lynch (investment management), and Nypro (industrial processing). Numerous other examples are sprinkled through the book, for example on pp. 58 (Canon disrupting Xerox; Japanese car companies disrupting American automakers) and 60 (Compaq and Dell disrupting DEC; Wal-Mart and Target disrupting department stores; Apple disrupting recording distribution).

fn 6 – DC, p. 61:  “In our studies of disruptive innovation in the private sector, we are not aware of a single instance in what a for-profit company was able to implement successfully the disruptive innovation within its core business…. The few that survived disruption did so by creating, under the corporate umbrella, a new business unit, with a new business model attuned to the disruptive value proposition.”

fn 7 – DC, p. 51. The authors of DC are not among the legion of critics who blame schools for our societal decline. Indeed, they make a powerful argument (pp. 51-64) that schooling has been hugely successful. They contend that schools have done “remarkably well” despite numerous substantial shifts in the demands placed on them — better, in fact, than private sector companies have done when faced with comparable disruptions.

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