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.