Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Gazing Into the Crystal Ball

Christensen predicts that, through the development of student-centric technologies, computer-based learning will soon disrupt public schooling in the United States. So far, “computers have not increased student-centric learning and project-based teaching practices. The implementation of computers has not caused any measurable improvements in achievement scores. And, most important for the purposes of this book, computers have made almost no dent in the most important challenge that they have the potential to crack: allowing students to learn in ways that correspond with how their brains are wired to learn, thereby migrating to a student-centric learning environment.” “But as is the case with all successful disruptions, if you know where to look—competing against nonconsumption—computer-based learning is methodically gaining ground as students, educators, and families find it better than the alternatives—having nothing at all.” “The data suggest that by 2019, about 50 percent of high school courses will be delivered online. In other words, within a few years, after a long period of incubation, the world is likely to begin flipping rapidly to student-centric online technology.”

Why is Christensen betting on computer-based learning when its track record has been so poor? “First, online learning will keep improving, as all successful disruptions do. It will become more enjoyable and take full advantage of the online medium by layering in enhanced video, audio, and interactive elements. Currently, according to reports, online learning works best with more motivated students; over time, it will become more engaging so as to reach different types of learners. A second driver of this transition will be the ability for students, teachers, and parents to select a learning pathway through each body of material that fits the learners’ needs—the transition from computer-based to student-centric technology. The third factor that will likely fuel the substitution is a looming teacher shortage. The fourth factor is that costs will fall as the market scales up.” Christensen knows that current models of computer-based learning are not very good and “largely mirror the dominant type of learning method in each subject.” But in the industries he has studied, products inexorably improve.

Since Christensen made his prediction in 2008, we have seen the growth of massive open online courses (MOOCs). In the case of MOOCs, “online technology provides accessibility for those who previously would not have been able to take the course. It provides convenience for a student to fit the course into his or her schedule at the time and place that is most desirable. To varying degrees, it is simpler because it offers comparatively greater flexibility in the pace and learning path. And when it is software-based and online, it can scale with ease. Economically, it is often less expensive than the current model, even at today’s limited scale.” But the completion rate of most MOOCs is less than 10%. Most students who sign up for a MOOC never finish it. Christensen believes that “layering in enhanced video, audio, and interactive elements” will make online learning “more engaging so as to reach different types of learners,” but there is no reason to believe that multimedia is going to make these courses intrinsically motivating to most students. Students don’t hire schooling to be entertained; they hire schooling to “feel successful and make progress.” The students who are most successful in MOOCs are those who are already most motivated to learn. To be disruptive, computer-based learning cannot just improve average performance and be more cost-effective, it has to help those who are least motivated to study core academic subjects be successful at them.

Christensen is essentially asking us to do something in software that we don’t know how to do in person. If we assigned every child a personal tutor, and every tutor was an expert in instruction and had access to the best instructional resources in the world, many children would continue to struggle and feel unsuccessful. Average performance would go up and the United States would be more competitive, but we would not be any closer to the goal of every child in every demographic becoming proficient in all core academic subjects. This is not something that we can do with the instruction we have today.

Unless there is a disruptive innovation in the technology of instruction, computer-based learning will be a sustaining innovation that improves schooling, but does not disrupt it. There is actually little or no resistance to computer-based learning in schools, and once it becomes good enough, schools are likely to hire it for four different jobs. First, many courses will include some form of blended learning, where teachers integrate online coursework into an existing course. This is how schools will plug computer-based learning into their interdependent systems. Second, schools will offer online courses in place of electives and other specialized or advanced courses that they can’t afford to offer themselves. Third, schools will convert some existing courses into online courses for their most motivated students. By hiring computer-based learning for these two jobs, schools will be able to channel more resources to core academic subjects and their neediest students. Fourth, schools will use computer-based learning to provide additional instruction to struggling students. Note that, in my prediction, schools are not using computer-based learning in place of teacher-led instruction for struggling students, but to increase the total amount of instruction these students are receiving.

Schools have responded to No Child Left Behind not by improving instruction, but by giving students more of it. If math class used to be 50 minutes a day, it is now 70 minutes a day. On top of that, struggling students go to a “math lab” or “intervention block” twice a week where they work with a math teacher in small groups. The use of small groups is not to provide customized instruction, but to increase extrinsic motivation through heightened accountability. This is basically the same model we have been using for special education for decades. Since there have been no innovations in instruction for two hundred years, schools have had to find other areas in which to innovate. If computer-based learning is simply a platform for delivering the instruction we already have, then it will be crammed into the same role.


  1. Very nice series of posts!

    I don't quite understand the distinction you're drawing ... Why can't a "disruptive innovation in the technology of instruction" occur in the form of an online course?

    Also, to nitpick a bit, I think MOOC completion rates are more complicated than you imply

    1. Hi Steve!

      Disruptive innovation in the technology of instruction can certainly occur in the form of an online course.

      But Christensen isn't saying that, at some point in the future, some kind of disruptive innovation may occur. He is saying that online learning is already on the path to disruption, and he is very specific about what the mechanism for disruption will be.

      First, a disruptive innovation has to change the metrics of performance for an industry. Christensen argues that online learning will change the metric from raising average test scores to enabling every child in every demographic to achieve proficiency in all core academic subjects. Online learning could disrupt schooling in other ways. For example, it could expand access to schooling to nonconsumers, or it could increase the diversity of courses available to students. But that is not what Christensen is predicting.

      Second, since Christensen is predicting that online learning will disrupt schooling by enabling every child in every demographic to achieve proficiency in all academic subjects, then he is predicting that online learning will enable those students who are least motivated to study core academic subjects to study them and be successful. It's not enough to attract nonconsumers or to be successful with students who are already motivated. This is why I mentioned the completion rate metric. If you see online learning as a way to provide access to nonconsumers, then that metric isn't very relevant. In this context, I think it is.

      Third, Christensen argues that online learning will be disruptive because it will enable customized instruction to scale. The prediction is based on the assumption that customized instruction already exists that can enable the least motivated students to study and be successful at core academic subjects. I'm pointing out that customized instruction to do what Christensen wants does not exist. A disruptive innovation in instruction can be developed that will make this happen, but it is not a matter of taking expert instruction from personal tutors and scaling it.

      Hope that clarifies my position a little bit better!