Alexandria Online

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Disrupting Class: Will the Online Revolution Come to Independent Schools?

Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn (Disruption Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns) argue very convincingly that the small growth in online or computer-based learned that is beginning to accelerate will soon create a revolution in teaching along the lines of the introduction of the personal computer in the 1980's. Disruptive products and services begin as cheap, weak imitations of something that is established: early PC = online course; mainframe = traditional class. But a whole class of "non-consumers" arises: people who would not otherwise have access to any semblance of the established product or service. They take to the new technology or service like crazy, and the new thing gets better and better and finally replaces the established thing.

I don't think this will ever happen to established independent schools. That's my bet. And here's why.

While it seems pretty straightforward to replace a traditional algebra class with an online algebra class, there will never be a computer-based or online way to raise children. And raising children is much of what we do, not only in independent schools, but wherever adults are put in charge of groups of children.

I specify my own sector of the education industry, independent schools, because I think it is a more potent counter-example to the educational disruption that Horn and Christensen are talking about.

When parents send their children to independent schools, they are spending for a service that they could receive for free in their local school district. Some of the school districts that we draw our students from are excellent. But parents, and to some extent the students themselves, perceive a special value in going to The Episcopal Academy, for example, over the great schools in Radnor Township, PA.

For the sake of this argument, let's not even try to explain the factors that go into this decision. Suffice it to say that it is complicated and personal. Something to do with college admission, spirituality, growth of the whole child, values, small class size, community, etc. The list goes one and the items on it create an interdependent web of preference. I think many parents would have a hard time describing why they send their kids to Episcopal, but they are pretty sure that's what they want for them. There is something ineffable and unquanifiable that motivates them that defies a rational model. It is the complexity of communal life.

Kids learn when they are members of a learning community of parents, teachers and other students. They are motivated by their relationships, not by the material. They want to please their teachers, obey their parents, be accepted by their peers. There is no innate imperative to learn algebra; the imperative is learned by exposure to the community. Only when the learner embraces the community, sometimes wholeheartedly, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes from a lack of any alternative, can ideas begin to take root.

Once such a community exists, then yes: computer-based learning and online learning will quickly be adopted and prove their signature efficiencies. But the community is fundamental and primary; while the technological disruption is and will remain supplemental and secondary.

The question that my argument throws open is whether strong enough learning communities can develop online. There is no dirth of online communities, and some of them are quite strong. But can they ever match the level of bonding and shared beliefs that can develop in an actual community?

Disrupting Class is the most refreshing books about education I have read. Horn and Christensen talk about schools and learning in a way that no one else does.


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