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!


  1. Hi Claire,
    Great post! Very thorough. I just posted on the book too as we'd briefly discussed at the start of the summer. I didn't read your post until after I'd published my post. Interesting to compare our different viewpoints!

    You certainly have a better understanding of the online learning situation than I do. I agree, most of the online courses I've heard about are geared towards independent, self-motivated, strong-reading students. To completely differentiate instruction for all learners using technology is an exciting, but seemingly impossible task.

    I do email, and sometimes text, with my students on school-related topics. Would you use Twitter or Facebook? I know some teachers do, although I can't see using that approach myself, not yet, anyway!

  2. Hi Errin,

    That's funny that we should both post on this book so close together! I enjoyed reading your post.

    "To completely differentiate instruction for all learners using technology is an exciting, but seemingly impossible task." I agree, but at the same time I am constantly amazed at what is out there. As more and more teachers use web 2.0 tools I think we'll see more and more great learning resources created by them and their students. It will just be a matter of time before you can easily pick and choose which resources to assemble for a particular student. Having said that, I am still impatient for this this all to happen ;-)

    You asked about Twitter and Facebook. This year is the first time that I have communicated with a student via Twitter. He was travelling and wanted to communicate either via Twitter or Facebook. I use both, but felt more comfortable using Twitter with him as that is where I live my professional life. But if Facebook is where my students would like to interact with me, I'd be willing to set up a separate Facebook account for that purpose. I'm sure it would open up a dialogue on what information you want to make available to what people (ie maybe your teacher shouldn't be able to view the bush party pics you posted on your wall?!)

    Now, I'm off to comment on your post!

  3. Thanks for your post. I think it's quite insightful, and I agree with many of your points. There seem to be a few developments on which it is worth keeping an eye related to your points above. First, a key factor in the success of a student in an online learning environment--whether distance or hybrid--is the teacher. But the teacher undoubtedly has a different role in this environment. How do we improve pedagogy around this--and even more important to your point--how does the technology improve to make communications between teacher and student more robust, personal, and a lot less clunky? To me, this is the biggest dimension of "not good enough" that online learning has exhibited. It has improved quite rapidly in the last 12 years, but I think and hope we're just at the beginning of this. Check out Cisco's Telepresence technology to get a vision of what this could be like. Question is how to make this ubiquitous/very inexpensive.

    Second, with the introduction of Florida Virtual School's video game-based history course, I think we'll start to see online providers get more creative with how a course is presented. Sure, there will be bad courses and good ones -- and whether it's good or bad may depend on the individual's strengths as a learner -- but I hope we're at an exciting point here. Compared to the powerpoints that dominated online learning 10 to 15 years ago, many strides have already been made.

    Third, keep an eye on Learning Management Systems like Agilix's BrainHoney that could potentially allow for the creation of much more affordable courses that make content and paths varied and so forth even as they adhere to rigorous standards.

  4. Michael,

    Thank you for taking the time to read my post and to comment. I heard you speak at the Virtual School Society Conference this past spring in Vancouver BC; I was very excited by your talk as it spoke directly to my experiences in distributed learning.

    The examples you provided make one optimistic of what can be. Certainly browsing through the Florida Virtual School's course catalogue there are some very creative courses using project based learning that I would have loved to take as a high school student!

    With the communication piece, I see two main components; communicating with students as a group and then communicating to provide one on one support. If an on-line teacher want to communicate with a group of students to provide a lesson/tutorial etc services like Cisco's Telepresence, or Elluminate, WizIQ etc are all good options. When it comes to providing one on one support, the above services will work, as well as meeting students where they are already communicating be that Facebook, Twitter, IM, e-mail, Skype etc. Central to a student's success is parental support, so providing clear lines of communication to parents/guardians is crucial as well.

    There is no doubt that the tools are getting better, the courses are getting better, and as educators we're getting better. I'm optimistic that the rate of improvement is speeding up and as it does so more people will see the benefit of this model of schooling.

  5. Блог отличный. Надо бы Вам награду вручить за него или почетный орден. ;)


Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog! Any spam comments will be deleted.