MOOC’s & progressive K-12 education

Today I was challenged to have an opinion on how MOOC’s (like those offered by Coursera, EdX, Udacity, etc.) might be a disruptive technology for education in a bricks-and-mortar K-12 independent school. The following rant gathers a few thoughts on disruptive technology, disruptive business, and education.

Let’s say the iPhone doesn’t count.

The printing press was a disruptive technology for the world. The television too. And the internet. Disruptive technologies are a one-way street: these new tools change the landscape beneath our feet, and there’s no going back. Disruptive technologies are transformational in the change they deliver and destructive to the old tools that once held their place.

What about the iPhone? Does that count as a disruptive technology? The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 was disruptive in many ways. It opened the floodgates and changed markets ranging from communications to gaming to photography. It made new markets and triggered unexpected opportunities for innovation. But was the technology itself disruptive? Let’s say, at least for a moment, that it wasn’t. 

Disruptive technology vs disruptive business.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he knew that he was introducing a breakthrough device. He could see the earth shifting beneath us. But he chose to begin by announcing “three products in one” (a widescreen iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator). So was the iPhone’s technological step forward that it delivered three different things in one small package? As far as technology is concerned, I think we might be able to view a 3-in-1 bundle as an evolutionary step forward rather than a revolutionary step forward.

I would argue that the real disruptive technology here predated the iPhone and it was something much more fundamental than you might expect: touch screens. (Or if you’d like, multi-touch, which had also been bubbling to the surface well before the iPhone made its debut.) Can you imagine the iPhone without this bit of technology? Nothing else captures the essence of the iPhone better than touch screen technology: the ability to interact with content on a screen directly and naturally, without a mouse and without a stylus. The iPhone capitalized on the technological leap of the touch screen.

The iPhone’s revolutionary step forward did not belong to technology but instead to business: by partnering with AT&T, Apple was able to get its device into the pockets of millions of people through a subsidized upgrade instead of asking consumers to leap into an entirely new market. (And this overwhelming success then opened the door for consumers to buy a device that actually did create an entirely new market a few years later: the iPad.) This business maneuver fused together communications (AT&T) with hardware and software (Apple). It was a chemical change for these three worlds that would not be undone. That was the real disruption uniquely introduced by the iPhone.

The Ivy League Head Spin. 

MOOC’s are upon us and it is clear: something big has changed, and there’s no going back. But are MOOC’s a disruptive technology for education?

The reason that the world is reacting to MOOC’s is not because of the technology. The technology is really nothing new. But just like the iPhone, the disruptive change is in the market. Ivy League universities are offering their content for free online while charging astronomical tuition fees in person. The economic twist here is dizzying: why bother attending one bricks-and-mortar institution when you can take the best classes from a dozen of them online for free? Although our heads are still spinning right now, by the time we regain our balance we will be forced to ask: what will the real value of a college degree be in just a few years? (And while we’re at it, it’s worth a thought: would there really be such a fuss about MOOC’s if they were offered by institutions without as much clout?)

MOOC’s are changing the business of education. What’s changing the nature of education itself?

Beyond the staggering business change, the disruptive technology that is changing the world of education is like the touch screen in its familiarity: the internet is the transformational technology that is changing education, not MOOC’s. It was the internet that gave the negative connotation to the phrase “bricks-and-mortar” — just ask Blockbuster and Netflix, or Borders (and soon enough Barnes & Noble) and Amazon. It has only been a matter of time until schools were paired with that dangerous label too.

And so it is interesting to see the Ivy League schools bet all their chips on MOOC’s. Their timing makes sense: the Age of Abundance is here. Content is no longer scarce. The ownership of knowledge and learning has changed, and so has the power that comes with it. Students who have never lived in a world without Wikipedia are now entering the doors of these universities, and so perhaps it is a crafty maneuver for prestigious institutions to hang onto their positions by matching the tactic of the internet: offer everything to everyone for free.

Diagnose the opportunity, not the symptom.

MOOC’s are evidence of a strategic business shift that will ripple through the education world for a long time to come. But as an educator, MOOC’s seem only symptomatic to me. The real transformation in education lies with the foundation upon which MOOC’s are built: the internet and the Age of Abundance.

I say let the business types collect data from running MOOC’s. Let them develop new models to uproot the business of education. (And hey — let them deliver lectures online instead of in person and call it innovative pedagogy!) I look forward to plucking the fruit from the tree for myself, by taking courses, and for my students, by teaching with the incredible resources, individualized a la carte lessons, and adaptive teaching tools that are emerging from MOOC’s. But I will invest my own sweat equity in re-imagining the future of a progressive, relevant, empowering education rooted in the real disruptive technology that has already shifted the earth beneath our feet. I say let’s start the conversation from this point: that all students have access to the grand sum of all human knowledge at any time (right from their pockets, thanks to their iPhones). I think that is the beginning of a conversation about a pedagogical shift that is radically transformative. We can find ways to introduce MOOC’s into our teaching later.

[Click here to read Part II]

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4 thoughts on “MOOC’s & progressive K-12 education

  1. This is an interesting way of looking at it — that what’s truly “disruptive” is the access to limitless information.
    So this is where textbooks come in for me. What I fundamentally like about textbooks is that they organize information. They limit it — in a good way. I’m super excited by the concept of online textbooks because what I envision is a given textbook company choosing a scaffolding that’s thoughtful and that makes sense. So, for example, with regard to grammar — a good online textbook would choose a good order to present grammatical concepts in. But it would also provide a whole lot of flexibility within that scaffolding. I could fill in lessons myself with videos I make or blogs I create. The kids could record or film themselves. They could collaborate on activities with kids from other countries. In other words, I envision textbooks that provide some structure, present content accurately and well, and that facilitate a lot of interactive activities around that structure.

    • What great ideas and feedback! Thanks, Cristina. I think I enter the conversation differently when the focus is on textbooks vs. when the focus is on scaffolding. It might just be the language that distracts me (especially if the textbook of the future neither relies primarily on text nor on being a physical book). But the notion of scaffolding is essential — I agree.
      From there I see two areas that I would be curious to explore: one is the idea of students learning how to build the scaffolding for themselves. How empowering would that be! What does that look like? How is that done? Can that be done in some subjects but not others? Another question is about the flexibility of the textbook: can it be a foundation on top of which we can build (just like you say) instead of a monolith that stands looming over runs parallel to the things we create for ourselves (as I fear it often is)?
      And thanks again for being the first one to comment on my first blog post!

  2. The idea of the students building the scaffolding for themselves in beyond me. Like, literally — I can’t picture what that would look like.
    Right now, as a teacher, I want a well thought-out tool that basically says, here you go, teacher. Here’s a sensible order in which to present the stuff you want kids to learn. And as you see we’ve laid it out pretty clearly to get you started. And we’ve also provided lots of ways for you and your kids to build on this by interacting with each other and with others around the world, by watching film, listening to musical performances, and by creating their own content to put on the scaffolding. May we suggest skyping for this lesson on bullfighting? Here you go. Here’s a current list of bullfighters in Spain who like to skype with students. May we suggest the kids create a travel brochure for the lesson on travel? Here you go. Here’s an app that works really well for embedding photos in a brochure-type layout. Etc, etc.
    Voila! (That’s what I want 🙂

  3. It is pretty cool to see this get started. Good luck with it. I hope a lot of people get involved so that it becomes really valuable to everyone in education.

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