Saturday, August 8, 2009

Disrupting Class

Earlier in the summer I read Disrupting Class, one of my summer PD goals. The following are my scattered reflections on the book.

*Note: the book focuses mainly on high school--I would be interested to
see what teachers in the elementary grades have to think about the

  • Most schools approach teaching using the factory model; 30 kids in a class, assigned by age. It is difficult for teachers to address their students' individual learning styles. Some students get left behind and some get bored because everyone has to move along at the same pace. They mentioned that much of teacher training focuses on classroom management: an essential element in the factory model.
  • Technology can help; programs that teach kids according to their learning styles and only allow the student to move on when the student has mastered the content. We aren't there yet, but the authors are optimistic that collaborative on-line tools will be built that will allow teachers, students and others to create tutorials, lessons and so on that will help others to learn.
  • Cater to non-consumption. The authors point out that disruptive innovations usually target non-consumption. They give the example of the early SONY transistor radios; they were cheap and the sound wasn't great, but they were popular with teenagers who could not afford the only other option--big, expensive table top or floor model radios. Teenagers, previously non-consumers of radios, became the new consumers of the disruptive technology. In education the areas where we will see change is with courses that schools cannot offer due to student numbers and other factors. Distributed learning schools are not going to be successful if they are focusing on courses that regular bricks and mortars school already offer.
  • The disruptive innovations will not be successful under the current structures. He gave the example of Toyota's experience with hybrid cars. Toyota put together a team to build a hybrid from the ground up. They didn't have to use existing components and make do. They could re-engineer all of the systems so that the final product was efficient and worked well. Other car manufacturers did not take this approach, and their hybrid cars are inferior.
The Journey from Here to There

In my position as a teacher in a distributed learning (DL) high school I can see the growth in demand for a different model of schooling. In my district budgets are getting tighter and enrollment is dropping so creative solutions are being looked at. This fall all of our grade 10 students will be enrolled in Planning 10 (a core course) delivered in an on-line format. Doing Planning 10 on-line, outside of the time-table, will allow the students more choice; there won't be timetable clashes between planning 10 and other courses. It will also be possible for students to take more than a full load of courses. One can't help but wonder if being exposed to planning 10 on-line will encourage students to take other courses on-line, that currently are not offered at their school.

Right now, many of the on-line courses I have seen are not geared towards a range of learners. Typically, the kids who deal well with text, and are self disciplined enough to stick to a time line do well. There is not a lot of differentiation... yet. A lot of the talk at the distributed learning conference I attended in the spring (Virtual School Society Annual Spring Conference) was about how to cater to the big range of students who are now exploring distributed/on-line learning. People on the front lines want modular courses, where you can put together a course that is designed to meet the needs of the learner. I think we'll start to see these. Currently though, the cost to put together a complete on-line course can be quite high. I've heard estimates of $40,000 to produce one on-line course. On the one hand I am doubtful that we will see the modularity and differentiation that is written about in Disrupting Class, but on the other hand I am constantly amazed at the incredible applications that are available on the web, so who knows?

I'd like to know a bit more about the authors' visions of the role of the teacher in this new model. Right now as a DL teacher I can tell you that one of my biggest challenges is getting good lines of communication flowing between myself and my students. I've written about communication with my students here and here. Currently I rely on e-mail and phone to communicate with students, but recently it occurred to me that e-mail is very old school--I've got to explore the ways that my students are most comfortable communicating. For example, many students don't use e-mail, but are constantly texting; would they text me with their questions if that was an option?

Canadian Perspective

It definitely seems like it is a much more tumultuous time in education in the USA than in Canada. Frequently in Disrupting Class the authors referred to the negative impact of teacher unions and the tension between public schools and charter schools. That is not to say that those tensions do not exist in Canada; just that the magnitude is much much lower.

The Wrap Up

Where do you see the future of on-line learning? If you read the book, what did you think of it? As always, thanks for reading my post!