Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Definitive Response to Disrupting Class

Via Bill Kerr, the Andy Zucker at the wonderful but low-profile Concord Consortium provides the definitive response to Disrupting Class from someone who actually read the book, knows something about the current state of online instruction and can recall the history of technology in education beyond the previous six months.


One often-cited claim in the book is that “by 2019, about 50 percent of high school courses will be delivered online” (p. 98). Some readers interpret this to mean online courses as they are offered now—but that would in effect require half of all high school teachers to teach only via the Internet. Other readers believe the authors are referring to true computer-based (that is, software-based) courses. Only the latter—which currently don’t exist—will have the “technological and economic advantages” that the authors claim are so important.

Consider the economic advantages. The largest online high school in the country is the Florida Virtual School (FLVS). Like other online high schools, FLVS hires teachers who are trained to provide online courses. The state gives FLVS 11% more money per course enrollment than a face-to face school to pay for instruction and administration. The money is transferred from the brick-and-mortar school’s allotment to FLVS. Disrupting Class ought to explain that it is not instruction that costs less in online high schools. Instead, online schools do not need to pay for building construction, meals, transportation, libraries, theaters, art rooms, science labs, and many other features of brick-and-mortar schools. Are the authors recommending we give up those features in order to gain an “economic advantage”?

In other words, Christensen and his colleagues wish into existence high-quality, low-cost, software-based courses. Perhaps these will exist some day, perhaps not. The authors do not say clearly, as they should, that when they project that 50% of high school courses will be delivered online they are mainly discussing technologies that do not exist. They imagine advantages of computer-based learning, but provide almost no examples and offer little hard evidence that computer-based learning is or will be better than traditional instruction. The book suggests these emerging software-based courses will be customized in response to students’ “learning styles,” but the latter is a concept without a widely accepted definition or evidence of effectiveness.

The last paragraph is from the full PDF version. You should read it.


Claus von Zastrow said...

This was very useful. So many people erect their castles on shaky foundations.

Michael B. Horn said...

There are, of course, some falsehoods in Zucker's report as well--nor does it represent accurately our central points. It also make some good points from which we have learned.

For example, the analysis of FLVS is not quite accurate. FLVS only receives funds from the state if a student completely a course successfully. Traditional schools receive funds for seat time. This is a huge difference. The 11.4% that was received by FLVS (although no longer is because of legislation changes this past session) was to compensate it in effect for course development and further R&D given that cost for factors outside of its control in completion of courses (that said, it has an 80 to 90 percent completion rate). In addition, once you zero out all of the things that Andy cites--like buses and so forth but also recognizing that FLVS doesn't get certain funds for things that it might deserve to get as well that traditional courses do receive--and make it a truly apples to apples comparison, an FLVS course is in fact less expensive than a traditional bricks-and-mortar one... So, if one actually does the calculations, the truth is different and shifts back to what we said in the book.

Joel VerDuin said...

While I too have difficulties with some material in Disrupting Class, I find it more helpful than not at providing some framework for why technology use in schools is not successful to the extent we all thought it was going to be.

However, the paper presented by Zucker has suppositions on the part of the author that I am not so sure I gleaned from the book.

The 50% prediction by 2019 was really little more than a mathematical prediction of how long it will take, based on current adoption rates, to get to a 50% rate (based upon the model of other private-sector disruptive goods).

I not sure the book went into value judgments of whether or not this was a really good thing (see Zucker's comment, "Christensen and his colleagues wish into existence high-quality, low-cost, software-based courses")

I also don't agree with Zucker that the authors vilify teacher's unions ("For example, teachers’ unions are identified as a villain"). The authors do place a framework out regarding why schools are resistant to change, but they objectively point out multiple groups on this one - administrators, boards, legislators, parents, and... yes, teachers. The groups themselves aren't blamed, but self-interest and politics are. I tend to think this is pretty accurate when describing why schools have a difficult time in making sweeping or large-scale changes.

I do agree with Zucker that the book does not give credit to the differences which exist in the public education system as compared to the economics of private industry. I do see those differences making it difficult to lay the disruptive timeline model over the top of changes in public education.

But, I cannot find myself in agreement with too much more of Zucker's arguments (but that doesn't mean I agree completely with the book either).

Bill Kerr said...

Andy's pdf is a more critical review than his online article, thanks for the pointer

I have taught in open access and know that it is more expensive at the moment, although I wouldn't see that as a constant into the future. Cost is an important issue of course but not the most important.

I did notice what I thought was an error from Andy in this respect too: "Evidence from the lab of a Nobel Prize winner
that teaching students physics using less costly virtual laboratory simulations can be as effective as using actual laboratory equipment?" Compare this with the important point that alan kay made that simulations are not real science.

The main thing I got from Andy's review was that Michael and co-authors did not do their homework, especially the history of previous computer based reform attempts, before publishing an attention seeking book with a great theme (disruption). This is the problem we have on the web: how to find the real gold nuggets given there isn't time to read everything or anything like it.

Michael, I don't like that style very much - getting attention first and then doing your HW afterwards, although I do understand why it has become so prominent.

Brendan said...

Is this the type of software based learning that you feel is lacking?

I thought the book was pretty straight forward in stating that disrupting technologies follow a similar time frame when disrupting old tech.

Perhaps I'm just not understanding your argument yet.