Steven Volk, March 15, 2015
This past Thursday, I had the opportunity to hear Michael Horn, the co-founder and Executive Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation who was speaking at Oberlin on “Disruptive Innovation and Higher Education.” The following day, I was privileged to moderate a discussion between Horn and Bryan Alexander. Alexander was, for many years, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) and a leading advocate for education-driven, liberal-arts focused technology. He describes himself as a “futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher, working in the field of how technology transforms education.”
Finally, I hosted Alexander at a CTIE workshop where we enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation on how technology, particularly the ubiquitous use of digital platforms and media might be impacting how our students learn, what that means for teaching strategies, and whether the structure of emerging labor markets (including the fact that our students will be occupying a multitude of jobs in the future suggests that we need to be preparing them in different ways than we have in the past. (Our students are entering what many call the “gig economy”. The “gig economy” is about many, temporary, part-time jobs. It implies not only that we have moved past what I would call long-term employment monogamy, where people hold one or two jobs for their whole lives, but that we have also moved past serial employment monogamy, where individuals spend 1-2 years at a job and then move to another. Instead, it seems, we have moved to employment bigamy (my terms, blame me), where people will find multiple part-time and temporary jobs out of which they will attempt to put together a living wage – think Uber or Alfred).
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There are aspects of the “disruptive innovation” paradigm that, quite frankly, curl my toenails, particularly when applied to education, whether K-12 or higher education. In a moment in which the concept of education as a public good is under concerted attack in statehouses around the nation, the “disruptors,” in my humble opinion, not only seem uninterested in speaking to the larger purposes of education in a democratic society, but have adopted an instrumental approach to “solving” the “problems” of education which largely caters to the same market forces which are devouring public education systems across the country and beginning to nibble away at private liberal arts colleges. I wonder why legislators who have shown an increasing unwillingness to invest state funds in education, and governors who have disparaged the notion that education is for anything other than preparing students for entry-level jobs (viz. Wisconsin and Florida) will be interested in investing in “disrupted” classrooms that promise to produce critical thinkers, independent minds, and an inquisitive and informed citizenry – even if it promises to save costs by increasing classroom size?
So, while I’m not a fan of disruptive innovation, these folks do get some things right. (We can, by the way, trace the intellectual roots of “disruptive innovation” to the economist Joseph Schumpeter who theorized about the “creative destruction” inherent in a capitalist economy in his 1942 book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. For his part, Schumpeter drew heavily upon the first two volumes of Marx’s Kapital.) There is plenty to criticize about education in the United States today. College degrees cost way too much; the size of the debt load that students carry should be a source of national shame. We know all too well that the kind of education we can (and most often do) provide at liberal arts colleges is not available for the great majority of students at community colleges or many larger state institutions, not to speak of the for-profit sector. And while a considerable amount of the reported failure of the public K-12 system seems intentionally designed to provide cover for the shift of funds from public to private charter schools, there is abundant evidence that the public K-12 system fails all too many poor or marginalized children and their families.
The problem, of course, is that to the extent that the disruptors focus on what is creating these failures, they most often get it wrong. Problems in the educational system are not rooted in teachers who don’t care or union rules. Public school instructors at all levels swim against currents that would drive most of us back on shore in a second. (Thank you for your service!!) K-12 and higher ed are in trouble for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the U.S. has one of the highest childhood poverty rates among nations that we commonly compare ourselves with; that we live in a society of “Gilded Age” inequality where the rich have a better chance of succeeding without a college degree than the poor with a college degree; that state legislators, particularly in “red” states, have drastically cut support for higher education (Arizona has recently decided to zero-out support for many of its community colleges), etc, etc. One central factor underlying the increasing inability of parents to pay for their children’s college education is that wages have been essentially flat since 1979. These are factors not normally identified by disruptors, and so the solutions they propose at least insofar as there is a reference to the economic and political system in which educational delivery unfolds, are unlikely to work to the advantage of those who have been marginalized by this same system.
We won’t fix what needs fixing in K-12 and higher ed by ignoring the real issues that are undermining education in this country, but we can pay attention to some of the innovations that “disruptors” have encouraged, and in some cases sponsored, particularly in the field of educational technology. “Online education,” Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn recently wrote, “can effect the transformation not only of curriculum but also of learning itself.” I agree, but we need to get one thing straight before can happily march on.
Throughout the educational spectrum, from early childhood to adult education, one can find technology that supports the learning process in a remarkable fashion, providing stimulation, appropriate scaffolding, culturally relevant instruction, and dynamism. It can be used to foster collaborative learning and critical literacies, and it can under-gird creative pedagogy when in the hands of skilled and caring teachers. At the same time, certainly not all, and probably not most educational software does this. Most is based on older models of content delivery and as such is often more about revenues than learning.
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MOOCs are one example of both sides of this. MOOCs (Massive Open, Online Courses), promise content delivery and free access to anyone with a digital device and connectivity. It foretold, David Brooks breathlessly announced in 2012, a coming “campus tsunami” which would sweep away all of traditional higher education. “Online learning,” he wrote, would “give millions of students access to the world’s best teachers. Already, hundreds of thousands of students have taken accounting classes from Norman Nemrow of Brigham Young University, robotics classes from Sebastian Thrun of Stanford and physics from Walter Lewin of M.I.T.” The fact that Sebastian Thrun, who left Stanford to found the online education firm Udacity, recently admitted that “we have a lousy product,” suggests that delivering content is not necessarily the best way to think about technology in education, particularly on a mass scale where the main people drawn into these courses are what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls, “roaming auto-didacts,” “self-motivated, able learners that are simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, and markets.”
In the rush to provide online content, many overlooked what is probably the more important “O” in the MOOC acronym – “Open.” What if, instead of thinking about one very smart and successful person providing content to millions, you have millions – well, let’s start with hundreds or thousands – developing knowledge and solving problems collaboratively? That’s the premise behind the “Inverse MOOC” which Allison Dulin Salisbury wrote about recently in Inside Higher Education. Salisbury, who works in the President’s Office at Davidson College on partnerships and initiatives around entrepreneurship, K12 education, and education technology, wrote of one project linking Davidson, Middlebury College, and OpenIDEO, a collaborative online platform which brings people together to address pressing issues. OpenIDEO’s projects always ask “how might we…” as in: how might we make urban areas safer and more empowering for girls and women? How might we gather information from hard-to-access areas to prevent mass violence against civilians? How might we equip young people with the skills, information, and opportunities needed to succeed in the world of work?
Davidson piloted a 10-week human-centered design curriculum in conjunction with an OpenIDEO Challenge. The question: How might parents in low income communities ensure children thrive in their first five years? A small group of Davidson students — the Davidson Design Fellows — worked through three phases, including Research, Ideas and Refinement, with a focus on the City of Charlotte, North Carolina. (The information below is a slightly edited version of Salisbury’s post.)
- In the Research phase, students got out of the classroom to talk to people, learning to conduct interviews and focus groups, shadowing organizations working with parents from low-resourced communities, developing global contexts through formal, peer-reviewed research, and, through weekly workshops, reflected on how to develop empathy — how to listen without judgment and avoid assumptions based on intuition. Throughout the process, students shared insights, case studies and success stories on the OpenIDEO platform where the global community could comment, applaud and upvote the most useful posts. Meanwhile, thousands of participants from around the world were doing the same in their communities. Collectively, the community created — and curated — a collection of empathy building stories and resources to be leveraged by both the local and global community.
- In the Ideas phase, the students generated specific questions unique to the opportunity areas they discovered in Charlotte, such as: How might we use community spaces to connect parents to pre-existing resources?
- During the Refinement phase, the students broke down their big ideas into bite-sized pieces that could be quickly prototyped for feedback. They built physical models and created digital mockups to uncover insights. Students then facilitated sessions with end users for feedback, focusing on testing assumptions and generating insights to inform future iterations of prototypes. They learned to fail safely, receive (and facilitate!) criticism for their ideas and value iteration as a prerequisite for innovation. One student noted that failure is only failure if it’s an end point, but as part of the process, failure is a tool for testing assumptions and building greater empathy for an end user. The prototyping provided an opportunity for students to celebrate their creative works in action. They also learned to bypass traditional metrics of success— how much content you know, for instance—and instead measure success by their ability to co-create a solution that solves a real problem. And, again, they were engaging in the giving and receiving of feedback within a global community of participants online.
Salisbury concludes by observing: “In our globalized world, the community that constitutes the object of study may be increasingly as important — or more important — than the dissemination of information about the object itself. MOOCs could be a democratizing force still by facilitating this participation.”
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In Experience and Education John Dewey wrote, “What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?”
It strikes me that the “disruptors” and most MOOC enthusiasts are most interested in winning “prescribed amounts of information about geography and history.” But the real innovators, the “inverted MOOC-ers,” those who care about a democratic future, are much more concerned with our students’ values, their ability to appreciate “things worthwhile,” and a worry about what exactly they will carry with them into the future. We now have the opportunity to use technology to connect us and our students to a larger world in which collaborative, open platforms can help us take advantage of everything we are privileged to enjoy at face-to-face liberal arts colleges to answer the burning questions which many of us share.
So, my question is: why exactly is it that we aren’t piloting these “inverted MOOCs” with our students?