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Why the Time to “Disrupt Class” is Now

Posted in Ed Tech on May 22, 2012 by

Clayton Christensen’s “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” was a Knewton Book Club pick this month.

When it comes to the intersection of technology and education reform, Christensen’s “Disrupting Class” is a virtual crystal ball for our educational system trajectory.

The theories and prognostications contained in this book represent many of the reasons I decided to work for Knewton. I believe Knewton is standing at the precipice of what will be transformative change in how education is delivered to the world.By using technology to personalize learning, and eliminating the “one size fits all” model that exists today, we can bridge the gap between the way students live and the way they learn.

Students today have come to expect personalization in all aspects of their lives, whether it’s a song recommendation on Pandora, ads targeted just for them on Google and Facebook, or a movie recommendation on Netflix. Young people have come to expect the data mining that makes future experiences more targeted and meaningful.

To illustrate this point, let’s think of an average teenager: “Mary.” 

For Mary, a typical morning before school might look like this:

6:00 am: Mary’s alarm on her cell phone goes off (she doesn’t own an actual alarm clock. Why should she? Her phone has a clock and an alarm!).

6:10 am: Quick login to Facebook to see what’s going on with her friends. Mary updates her status and has a brief chat with a friend about a homework assignment due later that day. She also sees an ad for flowers from a site she frequents and remembers Mothers Day is coming. She orders the flowers quickly.

6:30 am: After a quick shower, Mary texts two friends to tell them to save a few seats on the bus so they can work together on the math homework that was due today. Mary is weak in math so this collaboration will help. She tried using the textbook, but she couldn’t find the content she needed to complete the homework (however, the book has been a great doorstop to keep her little brother out of her room).

6:45 am: Mary walks to the bus listening to Spotify on her phone. Three new songs are queued up for her. She shares one of them with her friends on Facebook.

7:00 am: Mary is on the bus. Turns out she and her friends couldn’t get seats together. Not to worry! Mary’s phone has a wifi hub built in, so they fire it up, open a Google doc and work collaboratively on the homework from opposite ends of the bus. Together they successfully complete the work.

7:20 am: Mary arrives at school. She posts a final Tweet and one last status update on Facebook. She notices that she has an email from the flower store: the flowers she ordered will be ready by the end of the day. They also included a box of chocolates free of charge. (Every time Mary has ordered flowers in the past, she’s also bought chocolate. She wasn’t planning to do so this time, but she’s happy to hear the company included the box! Her Mom loves chocolate.)

7:30 am: Mary’s school day begins. She has to turn off and store her cell phone, as they’re not allowed in the classroom (ugh). Next up — 7 hours of boring lectures in the same classroom, most of them on topics she already understands.  She really wishes she could spend less time listening to lectures on history and science topics she already understands, and work more on math where she is struggling.

This is a made up scenario, of course, but it illustrates the stark contrast between the way a student like Mary lives her daily life, and what happens when she steps into a classroom. It’s as if students are living in the future –- using technology to collaborate, communicate, and consume –- until they get to school. Too often, when they walk through the school doors, they step back 50+ years into a one-size-fits-all factory-model educational system that, for the majority of learners, is both inefficient and ineffective.

Changing the Paradigm

At Knewton we’re working hard to help change this paradigm. We believe that we can provide a better and more personalized educational experience for all learners.  By using the vast amounts of data that an individual student creates when working online, and by harnessing the combined data power of thousands of learners, Knewton can make a precise recommendation on what a student should work on next, and even the best format (modality) for that student to consume it most effectively.

In “Disrupting Class,” Christensen asserts that the problem in American education is that schools, curriculum, and pedagogy are monolithic.  He says that in order to cultivate multiple intelligences, we need to move past the monolithic textbook experience.  He goes on to say that schools, by offering more student-centric curriculum, will see increased student interest and motivation, and learning as a whole will dramatically improve.

“Student-centric learning opens doors for students to learn in ways that match their intelligence types in places and at the paces they prefer by combining content in customized sequences.” Christensen goes on to point out that, “Student-centric learning is the escape hatch from the temporal, lateral, physical, and hierarchical cells of standardization.“

Think about how Mary’s world changes with more student-centric learning. Her educational experience will more closely mirror the way she lives, and will help her engage in her learning. Instead of helping students “get through a textbook,” Mary’s teachers and school will start thinking more about how to make the most of school time by providing the exact content Mary needs at that moment in order to get the maximize learning gain.

The technology to make this happen is available today. However, in order to make this a reality there needs to be large-scale reform in how we think about and define school and learning.  We need to move closer to a proficiency-based model that is based on outcomes — and away from a model that is based on a student being in a seat for 8 hours a day – in order to improve learning effectiveness in a meaningful, long-lasting way. Christensen seems to agree.