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Will Technology Save Education?

In his Class Struggle column last week, Jay Mathews asks the question Will Technology Save Our Kids?

The post deals with a new book called “Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education”, the thesis of which Mathews summarizes in one long sentence.

Because of the rise of technology, Moe and Chubb say, our future schools will be more customized to students, more effective, more beneficial to teachers, less costly, more autonomous, more competitive, more accountable, better at serving needy constituencies, better at promoting social equity and better at doing what works.

All of which sounds very much like Disrupting Class a book that’s been getting a lot of buzz in the online echo chamber in which I live (and which I just finished reading about the same time I read Mathews’ entry).

Both sets of authors seem to be depending a great deal on virtual schools to provide the competition necessary for the disrupting/liberating of American education.

While I haven’t read the book by Moe and Chubb, Disrupting Class started strong but in the it was something of a disappointment.

Christensen, Johnson and Horn start out in the early chapters with a very good assessment of the American educational system and how we’ve been using technology.

…the current educational system – the way it trains teachers, and the way school buildings are laid out – is designed for standardization. If the US is serious about leaving no child behind, it cannot teach students with standardized methods.

While people have spent billions of dollars putting computers into US schools, it has resulted in little change in how students learn. And most products that the fragmented and marginally profitable education software industry has produced attempt to teach students in the same ways that subjects have been taught in the classroom.

The reason for this disappointing result [little or no improvement in learning] is that the way schools have employed computers has been perfectly predictable, perfectly logical – and perfectly wrong.

However, they then turn to writing a business book, discussing how companies that dominate their segment of a particular industry have been disrupted by outsiders who target an unserved part of the marketplace.

Their conclusion is that technology, and specifically online educational delivery systems, will be the disruptive force in the education business. Control of the educational marketplace will no longer be dominated by one giant corporation (big education).

…when disruptive innovators begin forming user networks through which professionals and amateurs – students, parents, and teachers – circumvent the existing value chain and instead market their products directly to each other, … the balance of power in education will shift.

The concept of using networks (both people and the technology that connects them) to differentiate instruction is very attractive, and especially if doing so also gives parents and students more control over the educational process.

But Christensen, et. al. (and I suspect Moe and Chubb) seem to be saying that implementing a new method of delivery for instruction is all that’s needed to trigger an overhaul of the American education system.

Maybe I need to read the last third of the book again, but somewhere in this coming disruption also needs to be a serious look at both the curriculum being used as well as the tools we use for assessing student learning.

For technology to save education, start by dumping the concept that all learning is measured by standardized tests, along with the curriculum that’s custom designed to support it.


  1. joe

    Your comments and question caught my eye. I’m currently taking a course on how to integrate Blogs/Wikis into the classroom to help strengthen/extend my teaching of reading, writing, and critical thinking with my high school students. I agree that competition has changed the way education is delivered and that the standard way we have approached learning may be an archaic model. However, many teachers are adapting to the changes in society that are altering our classrooms/educational system. The two books you mentioned have piqued my interest as well.

  2. Jay Mathews

    Great post. You said it much better than I did.

  3. Michael B. Horn

    Thanks for your post. I agree that there is much more to transforming the system than just what it is in the book we authored–a couple of the things you reference in this post and many more as well. We’ve learned quite a bit about this in the past year and change, which is why we started Innosight Institute–recognizing that the book was a first step in a conversation so we wanted a platform to do further research, but also that understanding how change comes about in organizations could be used in many other areas that need changing, too. Also, there are many areas we don’t understand yet, and so we rely on people out there to articulate them. As it so happens, on the topic of standardized tests, we did have something to say about that in Chapter 4 as we discussed how the notion of assessment could and should change. Moving to online learning certainly does not guarantee a student-centric system, but it does provide a platform with the possibility of moving it there and has made some big leaps forward.

  4. Stella Gorlin

    Very interesting analysis. In my graduate program, we’re taking a teaching with technology course and one of my primary concerns is how to incorporate these new tools in ways that are useful for the students, help me with the content and also facilitate success on standardized tests. Can technology really do all that? I have my doubts. But I’m also open to the possibility. Technology allows for collaboration in a way that is totally refreshing. And I support the democratization of access to resources and courses. And of course information more generally. Online learning is naturally more self-directed and might provide a structure in which students who are invisible in a real classroom can flourish in a virtual one.

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