Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Review - "Disrupting Class" by Clayton Christensen

Clayton Christensen’s book, Disrupting Class, is a fascinating look at how disruptive new technologies will soon transform the dismal state of the American education system. By far, the most intriguing aspect is the potential for online education to completely upend traditional schools and dramatically improve education.

Some of the biggest problems with schools are often lost in the contentious political debates over teachers’ unions, vouchers, and merit pay. Often, the underlying problems are completely ignored because they seem intractable. The traditional classroom model – where one teacher instructs 25 students – is antiquated and ineffective at addressing students’ needs. As Disrupting Class illustrates, each student has unique learning styles and abilities, which are completely ignored in traditional schools.

In brick-and-mortar schools, where there are vastly more students than teachers, education cannot be customized to individual students. The instructor tries his or her best to teach according to the learning style that reaches the most students, but those who march to the beat of a different drum inevitably fall through the cracks. Classes invariably move at the same pace despite the fact that students do not learn at the same pace. An instructor teaches a unit, the students are tested on the material, and the entire class moves on to the next unit, regardless of the performance of individual students. As a result, the advanced students are bored in school and want to move faster, while the struggling students fall farther and farther behind as their knowledge deficiencies accumulate.

Disrupting Class envisions a future where these things are no longer problems, due to interactive online education that is far better than today’s education software, which far too often is nothing more than glorified flash cards. In the online classes of the future, each student will be able to learn at his or her own pace, and won’t advance to the next unit until he or she has mastered the material from the current one. The concept of awarding letter grades for classes might be replaced by measuring how long it takes a student to earn an A.

Additionally, online education will allow for classes to be customized to the student’s particular learning style. The debates over whether one particular teaching style is better than another, or whether charter schools are better than traditional schools, will vanish. When each student can learn the material in a manner tailored to his or her own needs, we will finally recognize that no single teaching style or type of school is best for all students.

Although the book primarily focuses on the American education system, the international implications of disruptive education technology are possibly even more profound. Salman Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy, stressed this point in his recent TED Talk. Online education offers the possibility to turbo-charge the human development of countries where access to education is still a problem. Far too many children in the slums of developing countries have little access to education of any kind. The proliferation of online education – which should roughly coincide with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets in much of the developing world – will open up vast new worlds of information to students in the most remote parts of the planet, where local teachers are unavailable, unknowledgeable, or expensive.

Disrupting Class gets its name because, in Christensen’s view, these educational innovations will largely take place outside of traditional classrooms, and eventually supplant them entirely. In the infancy of online education, teachers will use online education to supplement their in-class curriculum, or use it to allow students to take classes that are not offered at the school. Over time, education software will play a larger and larger role in classrooms until the schools themselves are no longer necessary. Students might continue to gather with their local friends in a building called a “school” to learn, but classes will be determined by learning style, ability, and personal interests rather than by school district. Teachers will instruct students entirely via computer.

How long will it take until online education is widely adopted? Not long, by Christensen’s estimate. He notes that online education is following the same adoption pattern of many other disruptive technologies, such as digital photography, which start off very slowly but suddenly become dominant once they reach critical mass. According to Christensen, in the United States in 2000 there were 1,000 students in classrooms for every 1 online learner. By 2007, this ratio had dropped to 100 to 1. If this trend continues, online learning will command a sizable chunk of the market (10%) by 2014, and gain a majority by 2019. Shortly thereafter, our 170-year-old model of classroom-based learning will come to an end.

Projections from "Disrupting Class" by Clayton Christensen

My sole criticism of the book is that it is a bit too broad. Christensen primarily focuses on online education, but devotes short sections to other innovations like new methods of evaluating teaching styles, and teaching highschoolers the necessary parenting skills they will need to one day raise successful children of their own. Although these are certainly interesting ideas worth exploring, they felt a bit out of place in a book primarily about the disruptive nature of education technology. I would have liked to see these chapters replaced with more information about online education, which is, after all, the main focus of the book.

Disrupting Class is thought-provoking and charts a very plausible course for would-be developers of online education tools. The future of education will inevitably be online. The advantages are just too numerous to ignore.

4/5 stars

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