Logging In To Learn: It’s A Matter Of Time Before Technology Takes Over Classrooms

by Anand Gurumoorthy - Dec 16, 2017 01:35 PM +05:30 IST
Logging In To Learn: It’s A Matter Of Time Before Technology Takes Over ClassroomsOnline education
  • Classrooms of the future will be a blend of online and conventional technologies.

    It may well be that disruptive innovations in education are phenomena whose time has come.

Clayton M Christensen, professor at Harvard Business School, shot to prominence with his book The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (1997). In this book, he first came up with the concept of "disruptive innovation" which has proved very influential in understanding business and technological trends.

A disruptive innovation is an innovation that creates a new market and eventually disrupts an existing market displacing established firms in the process.

As an example, take the case of personal computers (PCs) which appeared on the American scene in the mid-1980s. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) did not consider them a major threat since PCs were meant for children and hobbyists and were not powerful enough for DEC's demanding customers – major corporations and universities – who needed minicomputers and mainframe computers to get their job done.

However, these PCs improved over time until they became good enough to replace the incumbent systems in a vast majority of cases.

A previous disruption occurred in 1947, when the transistor was invented at Bell Labs. It was disruptive relative to the earlier technology, vacuum tubes. The early transistors, though smaller and more durable than a vacuum tube, could not handle the power required for tabletop radios and floor standing televisions (the consumer electronic products of the 1950s). The existing radio and television manufacturers spent hundreds of millions of dollars in improving the transistors as a replacement for vacuum tubes. However, despite their investment, it did not make much sense to swap in the transistor for the vacuum tube.

The first commercially successful application for the transistor emerged outside the mainstream consumer electronic market in the form of a hearing aid where a fist-sized vacuum tube would not fit. In 1955, Sony introduced the world's first pocket transistor radio. With poor audio reception, this pocket transistor radio was no competition for the elegant tabletop radios. But teenagers who wanted to take their radios out of earshot of parents found it of tremendous value. Over time, the transistor became so advanced that they could handle the power requirements of larger television sets and radios and within a few years vacuum tube businesses were obsolete, even though the incumbents had invested heavily in transistors.

PCs and transistors were truly disruptive innovations. Other disruptive innovations include steam ships which displaced sailing ships; TurboTax, a tax calculating software that displaced several professional tax accounting firms; email which has disrupted conventional posts and telegraph.

Building on this, it may be that in the near future electric vehicles may displace gasoline-powered engines even though now they are nowhere comparable to the latter in frequency of recharging/refuelling or pickup. The automobile industry has responded with hybrid cars (such as Toyota's Prius). Mainstream drivers may flock to the hybrid cars due to their superior gas mileage but it may prove to be a stopgap solution – a "sustaining technology" in Christensen's terms rather than a truly "disrupting technology".

In a recent book, Christensen, along with Michael B Horn and Curtis W Johnson, has studied the forces of disruption affecting school education. In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (Expanded Edition, 2011), the authors suggest that schools will move away from the "factory model of education" to a more student-centric learning and technology will play an important role in this.

The disruptive tools here are online courses and tutoring tools. At present they are not regarded as a severe competition to the conventional classroom. But many platforms have emerged that can help create apps that help different types of learners (here the authors refer to Howard Gardner's "multiple intelligences") master topics that they would otherwise have struggled to learn.

As the authors observe, "These will be simple products at the outset, experimentally devised by those who live face to face with students' learning problems. These might come from a father of a mathematics genius; he has figured out why his daughter is such a horrific speller and doesn't seem to care, and he has devised a method to teach spelling to his differently wired daughter. They might come from a high school sophomore who barely understands Algebra 2 and yet has found a way to teach the concepts to her friend, who is struggling even more in the class. Or they might come from a history teacher, who, in do-or-die desperation, finally figured out a way to inspire her students to become inquisitive about the Spanish Inquisition."

In the follow-up book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (2015), Michael B Horn and Heather Staker show that what was foreshadowed in Disrupting Class actually happened in the US. Salman Khan, a tech-savvy young man, started tutoring his cousin Nadia in mathematics using Yahoo's Doodle notepad. He then began posting his tutorials on YouTube so his friends and other relatives could access them. As Horn and Staker narrate, "In time, millions of people tuned in to watch. Khan responded by developing a full platform [the Khan Academy platform] that facilitates not only micro lectures but also pre-test, practice exercises, and a 'Knowledge Map' to track progress. The platform is open and nonproprietary; it has an open API, which means that other software can easily interface and be compatible with it. In other words, Khan does not make or even curate all the content on the platform. Volunteers are building on it by adding new topics – such as biology, art history, and computer science – and by translating it into other languages."

How will the classrooms of the future look like? Blended gives several possibilities by looking at development at schools around the US. Horn and Staker postulate that students will learn from a blend of online and conventional technologies.

Already in rural and small town America, where all courses cannot be offered due to shortage of teachers, a student wanting to learn, say, Arabic may do so through an online course rather than in a conventional classroom. Many schools are supplementing teacher taught material by material from online sites such as Khan Academy.

The authors state:

[The] potential benefits of online learning – personalization, access, and cost control – are pulling people away from traditional education and toward the new opportunity of blended learning. Just as millions of individuals have abandoned traditional tax accounting firms in exchange for the affordability and convenience of TurboTax, millions are feeling drawn to the personalization, access and cost control of online learning. These potential benefits are the energizing force driving the fulfillment of the prediction that at least 50 per cent of high school courses will be online in some form by 2019.

Horn and Staker ask a pertinent question: Will schools entirely disappear in the future and be replaced by online home learning? The authors anticipate that parents will need someone to safeguard their children while they are away at work and children themselves will need an area to socialise with other children and hence schools will remain for long. But classrooms as we know them may no longer exist. The "factory model of education" may be coming to an end.

Both Disrupting Class and Blended focus on K-12 education. Many disruptive transformations are occurring in higher education too (This territory is covered in another book The Innovative University (2011) by Clayton Christensen and Henry J Eyring). One is the emergence of massively open online courses (MOOCs) offered by organisations such as Coursera and EdX. These offer students the chance to study under the world's most famous and inspirational teachers (I myself count taking renowned behavioural economist Dan Ariely's Coursera course on Irrational Behaviour as one of the high points of my academic life). Moreover, each course may have more than 100,000 students taking the course at a time.

Indeed Christensen has declared in a recent interview that many US universities may go bankrupt in a decade or so. It may well be that disruptive innovations in education are phenomena whose time has come.

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