How to Disrupt Class: Throw the book out the window!

In a book published this summer, the business guru, Harvard professor and author of the best selling book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma” Clay Christensen, turns his analytical lens to the education sector and offers some compelling arguments about how best to reform it. His new book is called Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (co-authored with Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn), and I strongly recommend it to anyone involved in educational technology. If you can’t get to it right away, an excellent summary of it, written by the authors,  appears in this Forbes article. More can be found on their website, Publisher’s Weekly offers this commentary:

It’s no secret that people learn in different ways, so why, the authors of this book ask, “can’t schools customize their teaching?” The current system, “designed for standardization,” must by its nature ignore the individual needs of each student. The answer to this problem, the authors argue, is “disruptive innovation,” a principle introduced (and initially applied to business) by Harvard Business School professor Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma. The idea is that an audience in need will benefit from even a faulty opportunity to fulfill that need; in education, the demand for individual instruction could be met through infinitely customizable online computer-based instruction.

A reviewer on Amazon offers this summary of the book’s arguments:

Dr. Christensen argues that the traditional government-run education system will in the near future be “disrupted” by the innovation of computer-based learning. At first, online learning will compete against nonconsumption by offering classes in subjects where there isn’t enough demand in any given school to justify offering a traditional course (such as a very advanced math one or an unusual foreign language). But eventually, He believes that the technology will improve such that computer-based learning will render the traditional model of education obsolete. In “Disrupting Class”, he postulates that demand for computer-based high school classes will follow an S-curve that will start to “flip” (significantly accelerate) in the year 2012. In the years between 2012 and 2018, Dr. Christensen projects that the share of online courses will grow from 5% to 50% of all high school courses.

Professor Christensen’s influence on industries and large organizations should not be underestimated. Intel sent its top 2000 managers to his workshops in the early 1990s, when it was being attacked on the low end by innovators such as Cyrix and AMD. The Celeron chip emerged from this exercise, which helped Intel fend off the disruptive technology of the newcomers. However, he recognizes that the public school system is a very distinct animal from a profit-driven corporation, and the tools needed to effect change are quite different indeed.

One aspect of his analysis, I believe, is spot on regarding how one of the major players in the educational field will be affected by the predicted disruption, and that is the publishing industry. He characterizes the textbook industry as:

a scale-intensive value chain business, marked by high fixed costs, much like the pharmaceutical and commercial aircraft manufacturing industries. The costs of writing, editing and setting up to print and bind a book are roughly the same, whether 1000 or 1 million copies are sold. …These are blockbuster seeking businesses. A large monolithic market for a single best selling title is just as attractive to a textbook publisher as the blockbusters Zantac and Lipitor are to a drug company.

There is little dispute among textbook publishers that because individual students learn differently, they need differentiated learning options. But the textbook companies can’t get there from here. Were they to focus on developing different books for each type of intelligence, their volume per title  – and their profitability – would decline markedly. Because this is so disruptive to their business models, most of the intellectual and financial energy of this formidable industry focuses on creating and commercializing still more blockbuster books for large, undifferentiated masses of students.

But Christensen and his co-authors point to the enabling technology of such Web 2.0 innovations as User Generated Content as the solution to this dilemma. In other words, the disruptive innovation will come from the consumer side, as opposed to the producer side, since the producers have too much to lose to be the innovators. Like most disruptive technologies, these tools will initially be adopted on the margin, say for tutorial purposes, rather than be integrated into the mainstream system right off the bat. His prediction:

For several years, most teachers and students will still have conventional textbooks. But little by little, textbooks will give way to computer-based online courses – increasingly augmented by user-generated student centric learning tools. At some point, administrators, school committees, and teachers unions will recognize that even without explicit administrative decisions ever having been made, student-centric learning will have become mainstream.

A bit of historical perspective may be appropriate here. Anyone who studied engineering or science up to the early 1970s would recognize the name K + E (Keuffel & Esser), the premier manufacturer of slide rules for over a century. Their story may ring a bell:

K+E held patents for a wide range of slide rule features, including improved cursor indicators, functions and scales, and the adjustable body mechanism. Caught by the huge market shift created by electronic calculators, CAD systems and laser surveying systems, which displaced all of their strong markets, K+E shrank dramatically after 1972. K+E even sold some TI manufactured calculators for a brief period trying to capitalize on their existing customer base and industry knowledge. The final assets of K+E, mainly involving paper products, were sold to AZON in 1987, after several painful internal re-organizations.

There are some striking parallels between companies like K+E in the 1970s and the textbook publishers of today. A prime indicator of an industry in decline is rapid consolidation. Another is the introduction of “new” products whose main objective is to protect the existng franchise that the “old” products have built up over the years. One wonders if any publishing executives have ever heard of K+E. The authors may want to leave a couple of copies on the desks of their publisher, McGraw-Hill.


College Textbook Economics 101: Pay, or Pirate and Party?

With a new semester starting in a little over a month, the media is full of coverage of the cost of textbooks, and what publishers, colleges and students are doing about it. As you might expect, the solutions and strategies vary depending on which segment of the market they are coming from.

The first article comes from Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, which describes a move by publishers and colleges to create custom editions of textbooks, that carry a higher retail price, along with some legally questionable restrictions:

The University of Alabama, for instance, requires freshman composition students at its main campus to buy a $59.35 writing textbook titled “A Writer’s Reference,” by Diana Hacker. The spiral-bound book is nearly identical to the same “A Writer’s Reference” that goes for $30 in the used-book market and costs about $54 new. The only difference in the Alabama version: a 32-page section describing the school’s writing program — which is available for free on the university’s Web site. This version also has the University of Alabama’s name printed across the top of the front cover, and a notice on the back that reads: “This book may not be bought or sold used.” Custom textbooks like this one are proliferating on U.S. college campuses, guaranteeing hefty sales for publishers — and payments to colleges that are generally undisclosed to students. For publishers, the custom market is a way to thwart used-book sales, which cut deeply into their profits. Though used books have been around for decades, they have become a much bigger industry threat in the Internet age. Web sites for used books, such as and eBay, have transformed fragmented, campus-by-campus dealings in old texts into a national market, where discounts of 50% off the new-book price are common. Because of their limited audience, custom books are difficult to resell — and they sometimes aren’t eligible for authorized campus book-buyback programs.

Whenever apparently nefarious and price-gouging business deals are exposed, one can usually predict two parallel backlash reactions. One is a rapid response, the other slow and bureaucratic. In this case, the first is a reaction by students, the primary consumers and victims of this so-called conspiracy. The other is by the government, which is compelled to at least appear to be doing something, despite the massive publishing industry’s lobbying efforts in the nation’s capital. (From the WSJ article: In recent years, 34 states have proposed or passed legislation to control textbook costs, including measures to prohibit inducements to professors for adopting textbooks, according to a May 2007 congressional study. A bill pending in Congress would require more disclosure of textbook pricing, in part by requiring publishers to sell textbooks separately from the bundles of extras with which they are now often packaged.)

Students, as might be expected when they are feeling exploited, are responding with typical home grown, grass roots solutions. There’s the website:, which purports to fight textbook ripoffs, and has apparently collected signatures from over 1200 faculty members supporting their efforts. There is also the predictable market response to this cozy and collusive cartel, which is leading to the growth of the “open textbook movement”, covered yesterday by USA Today. One of the early players in this market is Flatworld Knowledge, which was founded in 2007 by a couple of publishing industry veterans, who recognized that the world was ready for a new publishing paradigm, and that it wasn’t likely to emerge from the established players.

It will come as no surprise, that, if there is an opportunity to get something for free, students do not feel compelled to wait for either the government or the forces of creative destruction to come to their rescue. And just as the recording industry saw its fortunes begin to shift on college campuses a decade ago, the textbook business is beginning to experience a similar threat from file sharing sites. The primary obstacle to massive pirating is of course the difficulty of converting the content from the printed page to a digital format. This step was relatively straightforward with CDs; it’s considerably more complicated to rip a book. As Ars Technica puts it” In contrast to ripping an MP3, scanning a textbook is a major task that requires a significant personal involvement, placing it beyond the attention span of many college students.

The best known textbook filesharing site Textbook Torrents, (catchphrase: “because you can’t torrent beer”) and its administrators clearly view themselves as providing a public good. The site’s rules page exhorts users who’ve saved money by downloading texts there to go out and spend the equivalent money on a scanner. “Scan as many of your other textbooks as you can, and put them up here for others to benefit from,” it reads. “There aren’t very many scanned texts out there, so let’s change that.” Anyone who manages to find all their books through the site are encouraged to go out and buy a text simply to contribute it to TT’s collection. [As of this date’s posting, the site is “currently temporarily unavailable”].

I predict an outcome similar to Napster for sites like Textbook Torrent. Due to their blatant copyright infringement practices, they are low hanging fruit for the enforcement arm of the publishing industry, and they will be sued into oblivion. Given a choice between “Free and Illegal” or “Free and Legal” most students would opt for the latter. This is where sites like Flatworld Knowledge can take advantage of the rapidly evolving dynamics of the textbook publishing industry (both legal and financial). They will succeed if they can adapt their marketing strategies to the channels that are already part of students; DNA. That means Facebook, the most popular site on college campuses after the filesharing sites. A search on FB Apps Directory for “Textbook” yields over two dozen apps (including one called “Free the Textbook”, by, you guessed it, Flatworld Knowledge”), but none currently have more than a handful of users. That will likely change by Labor Day, as students begin to return to classes.

Stranger in a Strange Land (with apologies to Robert Heinlein)

I just returned from spending four days with approximately 18,000 reading teachers from around the world, who met in Atlanta, GA for the International Reading Association’s Annual Convention. There were many outstanding speakers throughout the conference, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Alice Walker, and David Baldacci. Yet perhaps the most inspirational speaker was not a famous actor or blockbuster author, but a teacher. That speaker would be Rafe Esquith, who, while not a household name, is considered a celebrity and a rock star in the world of elementary education. He has garnered a litany of awards, including the American Teacher Award, the President’s National Medal of the Arts, and recognition by the Dalai Lama. He’s been the subject of a PBS documentary, and has authored two books that describe his approach to teaching: “There Are No Shortcuts” and “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire”. Here’s an excerpt from the cover flap of the second book:

In a Los Angeles neighborhood plagued by guns, gangs, and drugs, there is an exceptional classroom known as Room 56. The fifth graders inside are first-generation immigrants who live in poverty and speak English as a second language. They also play Vivaldi, perform Shakespeare, score in the top 1 percent on standardized tests, and go on to attend Ivy League universities. Rafe Esquith is the teacher responsible for these accomplishments. In Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire!, Rafe Esquith reveals the techniques that have made him one of the most acclaimed educators of our time. The two mottoes in Esquith’s classroom are “Be Nice, Work Hard” and “There Are No Shortcuts.” His students voluntarily come to school at 6:30 in the morning and work until 5:00 in the afternoon. They learn to handle money responsibly, tackle algebra, and travel the country to study history. They pair Hamlet with rock and roll, and read the American classics. Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire! is a brilliant and inspiring road map for parents, teachers, and anyone who cares about the future success of our nation’s children.

Both books are available from Amazon, but only the second one is offered in a Kindle version.

In this brilliant treatise, (which should be standard issue to all new teachers) Esquith writes the following:

Reading is not a subject. Reading is a foundation of life, an activity that people who are engaged with the world do all the time. It is often exceedingly difficult to convince young people of this fact, given the world in which they are growing up. Esquith continues: Never as a child was I put through thousands of hours of testing to assess my reading progress. I spent those hours reading great books. Those books made me hungry for more books. My appetite for literature and trips to the library were a better assessment of my progress than any standardized test. My students made up their own reading test consisting of only three questions. According to them, it is a far more accurate test of reading proficiency than anything designed by some testing service:

1. Have you ever secretly read under your desk in school because the teacher was boring and you were dying to finish the book you were reading?

2. Have you ever been scolded for reading at the dinner table?

3. Have you ever read secretly under the covers after being told to go to bed?

My students agree that if a child answers yes to all three questions, he or she is destined to become a reader for life.

Esquith, along with many other presenters at the conference, had nothing but contempt for two current pillars of the American education system: Basal readers, and No Child Left Behind. [According to Wikipedia, “Basal readers are textbooks used to teach reading and associated skills to schoolchildren. Commonly called “reading books,” they are usually published as anthologies that combine previously published short stories, excerpts of longer narratives, and original works.] Or as Esquith puts it,

school districts have turned to monotonous shared reading texts and have ordered all teachers to teach the same material at the same pace to all students. The district’s list of reading objectives always focus on fluency, comprehension and other necessary but deadly dull goals. I have never seen district reading objectives in which the words joy, passion or excitement are on the list.

You can learn more about this heroic individual by visiting his website at:

As an outsider looking in on the field of education, I couldn’t help feel a liitle like Valentine Michael Smith, the hero of Robert Heinlein’s 1961 classic sci-fi novel, ” Stranger in a Strange Land” (I just couldn’t grok so much of it). Wandering around the massive exhibit hall, and sitting in on many of the seminars, I came away with a couple of admitedly simplistic observations:

1) School administrations and state education ministries are motivated by a paralytic fear of failure to deliver adequate test scores, resulting in a massive juxtaposition of education budgets, now reallocated to support the holy grail of acheiving and maintaining “Adequate Yearly Progress”. No mention of terms like “love of learning”.

2) The textbook publishing and test prep industries have capitalized on this fear and paranoia by creating, at great expense, vast amounts of “scientifically researched and designed materials” to help students master the tests. Using complex diagnostic and analytical approaches, along with prescriptive programs of intervention and remediation, (only to be administered by highly trained and highly paid experts) the industry offers desparate school districts lifelines that promise spectacular results in terms of student achievement. (If said results are not forthcoming, not to worry, there’s another program you can try. )

3) Lost among all the hysteria is the fact that the greatest influence on kids’ ability to learn is the quality of the teachers, and their discretion in choosing inspiring and exciting material to teach their students. For demonstrated proof of this “theory”, see above discussion of Rafe Esquith and his 5th grade “Hobart Shakespeareans”.

So instead of spending billions on achieving such vague and nebulous objectives as “Adequate Yearly Progress”, maybe we should simply reallocate some of that money to hire really good teachers, pay them a decent wage, and let them teach the way they want. (Oh yeah, and spend some of those billions on good books that the kids can take home and actually read. This convention simply reinforced the conviction I have that probably half of the expenditures on areas such as intervention and remediation of below-grade readers would be unnecessary if more parents simply read to their kids)

You can find Esquith’s second book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire here:

The Weight: Whoopi raves about the Kindle

Not being a regular viewer of ABC’s morning talk show, The View, I missed the episode on February 13, in which Whoopi Goldberg did essentially a two minute promo for the Kindle (which probably only exacerbated the backorder problem). What was noteworthy however, was not that she was such a believer in the product, but that she made repeated appeals to the publishers of educational textbooks to create Kindle editions of their books. Her pleas centered around the damage that carrying heavy textbooks back and forth to school was doing to young childrens’ backs. She also remarked that it would likely cause kids to read more, a hypothesis that still needs to be validated in the field. Barbara Walters asked if kids would be able to afford one, and of course, between owning iPods and cellphones, purchasing a Kindle will not be a major obstacle for many in The View’s audience. For the rest, there’s Connect2Books. Maybe we can convince Whoopi Goldberg to be our spokesperson…

Click below to watch the clip:

Chicken/Egg dilemma: Textbook publishers rejected by the digital world?

In an article appearing in the March 10 issue of  the Michigan State U student paper, the author quotes a couple of publishing industry executives with diverging observations on the future of e-textbooks on college campuses:

Some of the weight of textbooks and course packets could be lifted off the backs of students if some textbook publishers have their way. Electronic or digital books, known as eBooks, could eradicate the need for students to carry around textbooks and, in turn, put texts into a slim device or laptop computer. Tom Stanton, director of communications for McGraw-Hill Education, said his company offers more than 1,000 digital textbooks — most at half the cost of traditional print counterparts. “Today’s eBooks offer a variety of features that enhance the learning experience,” he said. “For example, many of our eBooks are fully interactive, with audio, video, full search and note-taking capabilities.” Despite the extra features of digital books, they are not being adopted everywhere. Evan Schnittman, vice president of business development for Oxford University Press, said the textbook world has tried to reach out to the digital age, but has been rejected. The resistance is partially attributed to professors choosing books, Schnittman said, but it could be because of publishers trying to pass off eBooks on a group without a standard eBook reader.  “Textbooks have been a real challenge as an industry,” Schnittman said. “You would think that the most wired group in the world (students), would be the first to adapt (to eBooks).”   He said e-readers available now aren’t as multifunctional as publishers would like. “There’s no interactivity,” Schnittman said. “If you highlight a word, you can’t get a definition or get a video explaining the subject.”

It seems from these comments that the lack of a standard reader provides the publishers with a convenient explanation justifying their reluctance to migrate to a digital world. Why should they do anything to hasten the arrival of a day when their monopolistic pricing practices are threatened by the open-source community? (or at least the world of digital content, which generally carries lower margins than hard copies.) One is reminded of the effect the development of the standard gauge in the railroad industry had on interstate commerce back in the middle of the 19th century (which is when the current publishing industry got its start). Prior to a common railroad gauge being adopted by the dozens of different railway companies around the country, goods could only be moved a short distance before they needed to be transferred to a different size freight car. Once the standard gauge was adopted, a single freight car could be transported across the continent without its contents having to be transferred, thus bringing shipping costs down.  The development of the standard gauge railroad is recognized as one of the catalysts underlying the USA’s rise to the world’s largest economy by the end of the 19th century.

Maybe Amazon should be giving Kindles away to every high school and college student for the next five years…(or at least do volume license deals with every college in the nation). Why let the publishers dictate, (or inhibit) the standard? Let the market speak!