Several years ago I read Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn and immediately and viscerally agreed with the direction Christensen and Horn saw technology leading education. As one who long advocated mastery learning, self-driected instruction, and the use of technology to support schooling Christensen and Horn’s message resonated. Unfortunately, some of the initial on-line learning start-ups flailed and failed and others seemingly placed profit in front of service. Worse yet, cost-cutting politicians advocated disruption as a way to topple the existing structure of schooling by undercutting the need for traditional classroom instruction and, with it, the unionized teachers whose benefits and pensions were the envy of many blue collar and middle class constituents. The result: the whole concept of technological disruption as a force for equalizing opportunities is being overlooked and “disruption” is being characterized with the same scorn as “reform”.
Last weekend’s NYTimes featured an article by Christensen and Horn that described technological disruption as an “Innovation Imperative” in post secondary education, analogizing the advent of MOOCs to the advent of steamships and the institutions staying with brick-and-mortar to the owners of the tall ships who failed to accept the inevitable changes on the horizon.
Christensen and Horn offer Harvard Business School’s embrace of MOOCs as evidence of their inevitability, and notes that Georgia Tech, is staking its reputation on an on-line masters degree that will be offered at a sixth the price of its current degree. For those of us seeking an equal opportunity for all it is difficult to argue against bona fide masters degrees that are offered at 1/6 the cost of the traditional brick-and-mortar program. The authors provide a description of how a virtual program might provide the campus experience for future students without the campus costs:
The Minerva Project, a start-up headquartered in San Francisco that aims to provide an affordable liberal arts education, offers clues as to how this might unfold in higher education. Minerva anticipates that most of its students will be from outside the United States. To serve them, it will enlist operators to create mini-campuses around the globe where clusters of its students will live and socialize together in residence halls, as well as take online courses and work together on projects.
It is not difficult to see how this model could be used to help students in geographically remote communities gain access to higher level courses and engage in periodic small group dialogues with teachers within their school or travel periodically to a central campus for opportunities to interact with other students with similar interests.
But the closing paragraph of the article is the one that illustrates the greatest promise for virtual learning:
As concepts and skills are taught more effectively online, it’s unlikely that face-to-face interaction will cease to matter. Instead, students will be able to arrange for such experiences when it suits the job they need to get done. Given the reality that we all have different learning needs at different times, that’s a far more student-centered experience. It may not benefit some colleges but should create more options for all students.
Christensen and Horn’s articles focus primarily on post-secondary teaching and learning… but it is the student-centeredness of on-line learning that is its greatest draw for me… and I believe should be a draw for progressive and constructivist educators. When the common core is in place in all states and we (hopefully) replace summative assessments with formative assessments and replace age-based “grade” levels with learning sequences drawn from the common core we will be able to individualize learning in a way that was unattainable in the past. When that occurs, we will be able to reformat education completely and move in the direction of the kind of de-schooled society envisioned by Ivan Illich. We won’t get there, though, if we keep thinking of better ways to design sails.