I have been following my friends' tweets from NECC -- it is pretty much the only thing I use Twitter for -- which led me to Scott McLeod's talk on Educational Leadership in an Era of Disruptive Innovation, although I watched the K-12 Online conference version, which is apparently similar.
I'm not very impressed with Scott's presentation. Here's what I think he's doing:
- Conflating "disruptive innovation" with progress in general.
- Overstating the extent to which disruptive innovation destroys incumbent companies and organizations.
- Presenting centuries long differences in educational philosophy as a singular line of progress from traditional to innovative.
- Concluding that because progress is inevitable and destructive, and the things he likes are progress, you'd better get on board the train.
Conflating "disruptive innovation" with progress in general.
Listening to Scott's talk, it isn't clear what kind of technological innovation is not "disruptive." He asserts, for example, that the progression of LP -> cassette -> CD -> mp3 is a series of disruptive innovations. The cassette was somewhat disruptive, in that it opened up a new low-end market segment, but it certainly didn't displace the LP, and the CD wasn't disruptive to the market, it was a textbook sustaining innovation of the industry built around the LP. The CD was an improved LP which boosted that economic model (major labels, record stores, radio, etc.) for almost twenty years. The disruptive innovation was mp3 -- a low-quality, low-cost, margin-destroying innovation that wrecked the existing market.
But in Scott's examples, it all just seems like the march of progress: something new is invented, and it isn't very good at first, and then it gets better, and "disrupts" the market and takes over. That's pretty much it in his telling, but that's pretty banal. In Christensen's books, "disruptive" innovations are of a certain type. One excellent contemporary example is netbooks. Just a few years ago, nobody wanted to make a laptop under about $900, because they didn't think there was a market for a laptop with obviously "worse" performance than the then standard $900+ models, and they didn't want to ruin their profit margins. They wanted to make $400 a pop off $900 laptops, not $50 each on $200 netbooks. So finally, Asus, formerly just a motherboard and component vendor said "screw it" and put out a cheap netbook and it took off like a shot. It disrupted the market and forced everyone else to put out cheap netbooks or let Asus eat their lunch. But it is not "better" technology. It is not innovation in the traditional sense. That's the whole idea. That's why they started writing these damn books in the first place. It is innovation that is not "innovative."
Overstating the extent to which disruptive innovation destroys incumbent companies and organizations.
Scott's longest example is the disruption of wired telephony by wireless. Hm... let's see, if I want to get a cell phone who am I likely to call... Verizon? Sprint? Deutch Telekom? AT&FrackingT? Disruptive innovation doesn't necessarily knock out the incumbent players. Linux disrupts Windows, but Microsoft is still doing fine. MySQL disrupts Oracle and Oracle bought MySQL (and Sun). And Christensen cites numerous examples of companies that respond to disruptive innovation by moving successfully upmarket, ceding the low-end and competing on quality. If market disruption was an inevitable force of nature, Apple wouldn't have made it out of the 1980's, and we'd all drive Hyundais by now.
Presenting centuries long differences in educational philosophy as a singular line of progress from traditional to innovative.
It is convenient to present education as a factory model monolith, because it allows you to present individualized, student-focused, or just progressive education as "innovative" but it isn't historically accurate, any more than it would be accurate to present, say, socialism as a new innovation. The US isn't very socialist right now, and while folding in some more socialism would be a good idea, it wouldn't be a new, innovative, "disruptive" idea. It would be a change in philosophy, from one well-established, competing approach toward another well-established, competing approach. Same with standardized, traditional education (writ large) vs. individual, progressive approaches (in general). Argue on the merits, not novelty.
Concluding that because progress is inevitable and destructive, and the things he likes are progress, you'd better get on board the train.
I'm critical of this kind of approach not because I think Scott and I have very different ideas of what good schools look like. I just think he's making a very sloppy argument, and I'd like my side to do better. At the K-12 level, I don't think that most things that are being presented as "disruptive" are actually so (post-secondary is a completely different ballgame). I see no reason to think that, say, online learning is not a sustaining innovation for current institutions, and to the extent it is disruptive, I don't think it will inevitably destroy our current system. It may simply drive it upmarket (online strip-mall holding pens for the plebes, good schools for the 'burbs, etc).