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"Disrupt", the not so new, buzz word that all the tech journalists and bloggers have been using for the past few years. It's been bandied around the interwebs like cheap confetti to describe technologies and models that people think can upset the status quo and revolutionise the industries in which they belong. It's even been used in parodies of the technology industry, like in the Sitcom Silicon Valley. Whether the term is used accurately enough or not, when it comes to the education sector, and secondary (k12) education in particular, people need to be careful, otherwise, they can do more harm than good. I'll explain below exactly what I mean, and why the opposite may be what the education sector needs right now.

What is Disruptive Innovation?

First of all, a brief description of what the term disruption or the more accurate term, disruptive innovation, means

Disruptive innovation, a term of art coined by Clayton Christensen, describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors. - Clayton Christensen

Examples of this are the personal computer, which disrupted the mainframe and minicomputer; the mobile phone, which disrupted the fixed line telephone; and Wikipedia, which disrupted the more traditional encyclopedias like Britannica. There is much more to the term than that, so for more info, click on the link above, check out the other links at the end of this article or do your own research by reading The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution, both by Christensen (which I highly recommend). 

Many will understand the allure of this term. It's fun, it's edgy, it's so 21st Century! You can't count the number of articles that are highlighting the next disruptive company, with the list changing at least every year. But are all these technologies that are being called disruptive, really disruptive? Anyway, that's not what this post is about.

Education is Already Disrupted (and not in a good way)

The problem is, when looking at the education sector, disruption is nothing new and is usually not tied to happy times. It has been happening for decades, and teachers and students have been suffering. What I'm talking about is the old meaning of the word. For example, Policy change after policy change, caused by government change over, political agendas and point scoring have led to negative education disruption. I'm talking about, qualifications being used for years, and then all of a sudden, not counting in the league tables anymore (hello ICT GCSE?). Disruption. I'm talking about schools starting to use a seemingly good classroom tool/method/theory for a good few years, only for research to come out that it's not really a thing (hello multiple intelligences?). Disruption. I'm talking about that one lone teacher that champions this great technology in her/his school for years, but then becomes disillusioned by the bureaucracy, pressure and mismanagement and then leaves the profession with about 35% of the other teachers in the school, taking with them the good relationships and knowledge of the students, and the only knowledge and experience of that technology (hello terrible UK education sector turnover?). Disruption. OK, so I'm talking specifically about the education sector in the UK, but looking around the world, the issues are not so different in the US, Australian and many other countries. I can honestly say, that disruption is not what is needed in the education sector.

"But you're using a different meaning of the word!" I hear you all whisper. "It doesn't really matter!" I'd whisper back. Andy Rachleff, in this TechCrunch article, 'What "Disrupt" Really Means', explains that disruptive innovation doesn't mean that it is better, cheaper or faster.  "In fact, almost all disruptions start out with products that are inferior to those of the incumbents". Let's use the examples of disruptive innovations that I mentioned above. The personal computer was ridiculously expensive and not as powerful as mainframes when they first came out, and they weren't as easy to use back then as they are now. The mobile phone, when it came out, was ridiculously huge, with a price point to match and with batteries worse than the current iPhone. Wikipedia started off as a tiny little website that anyone could manipulate and no one was really using. Now, all three are great innovations, but they struggled to get there. Can the education system handle that kind of instability right now?

Education Sector is Different from most

Also, let's look at the industries these innovations disrupted. The computer market was small but fairly stable, the telephone landline market was large but also fairly stable, the encyclopedia market also stable. Education... not so stable. (Disclaimer: I'm not an expert in any of these markets apart from the education sector. So if I'm wrong on any of these, and the encyclopedia market, for example, was hotter than a Scottish bonnet, please let me know).

To further my argument that the education sector is a bit tricky when it comes to disruption, Dr. Rob Abel, CEO of the IMS Global Learning Consortium, explains

Education is a complex services business in which quality is difficult to define. Disruption in the education space requires better service models that are built around improved educational program quality. Comparison of education to the disruption of the steel industry by mini-mills (a connection some have made because Christensen uses this as a classic example of disruption) is not a valid comparison. Disruption in education is not about replacing the low end of a well-defined product. It’s about redefining quality in a much more complex world of knowledge than that from which most current educational models were designed. - Dr Rob Abel

Message for Education Innovators

This post is targetted mostly at the education innovators, edtech startups, potential disruptive innovators, venture capitalists and existing education organisations. I'm assuming you want your innovation to be adopted and to thrive, which is what everyone in your position would want. However, there is currently a teacher adoption issue when it comes to education technology. The existing disruption within education is partly responsible for this low adoption of Edtech in secondary, which is further perpetuated by limited training for edtech that is currently in schools. Teachers want to be able to get on with their jobs of planning, teaching, marking (as well as pastoral care, people management, resource management, data collection and analysis... the list goes on). If your disruptive innovation does not make their already busy and stressful lives easier, then you're only adding to the problem. Teachers want something that is better, cheaper and faster, not something that is inferior to the competition, which may well be your disruptive innovation. What is needed is something stable, easy to use, straightforward, and in some way improves their already disrupted lives. If that is what you're offering then that's a good start. If you want to disrupt something, then disrupt the disruption! 

As you would have already noticed, I'm focusing exclusively on teachers here. This is because teachers are the gatekeepers for much of the technology use within the sector. If they like it, they will use it in their classrooms, and it gets used by the students. If the students like it, they will learn and progress, and the parents will be happy. And there you have the holy trinity of education stakeholders. Teachers, students and parents are the three most important stakeholders in the education sector when it comes to teaching and learning. This is because, they have the largest influence on outcomes, with all other stakeholders such as management, leaders, government, etc having a negligible effect at best.

All that being said, does the education system need to change drastically? I honestly do believe it does. Could a disruptive innovation be the answer to our dreams? Quite possibly. But it would depend on where the disruption is, and who would suffer the most. More often than not, new innovations negatively impact the holy trinity (teachers, students, parents) in some way. If you can ensure that your innovation won't, then more power to you and all the best. 

 

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