Lost in Cyberspace
A Review of Disrupting Class
In Disrupting Class, the authors write about the shifts in many industries caused by what they call “disruptive technologies” and how such shifts affect schools. Because Disrupting Class has created a loud buzz in the education community and beyond, I was eager to read it.
Strengths of the book
The authors know a great deal about how technology has affected many industries, and they argue that schools need to more clearly understand the profound changes and opportunities brought about by computers and the Internet. A central idea in the book is that new technologies often are initially less capable than the old ones. For example, the first wireless phones were not very effective. But if existing industries fail to understand how much and how quickly the devices or services will improve, they underestimate the longterm impacts of new technologies.
Another central idea is that new technologies often succeed first in market niches poorly served by older technologies. This allows new technologies to mature without competing directly with the old technologies.
Finally, another important set of ideas concern what others have called digital “learning objects,” meaning electronic tools, lessons, or pieces of curriculum that may be used or combined in a variety of ways. Although the authors seem unaware of the considerable and complex history of this subject, they share the widely held opinion that learning objects will become more important to education.
Weaknesses of the book
Many people have been thinking and writing about how computers and networks will impact education for decades. Yet Disrupting Class gives the impression that the authors are the first ones to have thought carefully about this issue. They ignore or disparage almost all of the useful work that has been done in the past.
For example, the idea that computer-based technology should be used to assist students who are not well served in current schools is an old one. For decades, the federal government has spent billions of dollars trying to improve education for poor, rural, and other educationally disadvantaged students using the best and newest technology available. But almost everyone interested in education has concluded that while digital tools have many virtues, they are not a silver bullet or a panacea. Disrupting Class, however, shares the view of the utopians, who for years have claimed that technology will replace teaching as we know it. According to the authors, this will happen “because of the technological and economic advantages of computer-based learning, compared to the monolithic school model” (p. 99).
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-toface school to pay for instruction and administration.1 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”?
Disrupting Class states that computers have had little effect “save possibly to increase costs and draw resources away from other school priorities” (p. 72). Readers will not learn how creative school systems for years have been applying technology in precisely the ways that Disrupting Class recommends, namely to individualize learning, to make it more effective for greater numbers of students, and to offer alternatives to students who are not being served well by existing schools.
The authors declare that “the way schools have employed computers has been perfectly predictable, perfectly logical—and perfectly wrong” (p. 73). But they demonstrate little interest in anything schools are actually doing with computers, besides online courses. Is using computers to read aloud to blind students or struggling readers wrong? Is teaching students physics using less costly virtual laboratory simulations that can be as effective as using actual laboratory equipment wrong? Is connecting every school in the nation to the Internet wrong? According to Disrupting Class, almost nothing currently done with technology by schools is valuable.
The book’s claim that everything schools have done with computers is “perfectly wrong” is especially odd considering that so many states support online schooling, which is the technology Disrupting Class highly advocates. The Web has existed for only 15 years and already 44 states support online schooling. Schools are not ignoring the possibilities offered by technology. The authors would like to see education become more “student-centric,” meaning more individualized, through the use of computer software, but they say too little about students’ need to have personal contact with adults and peers.
Would Christensen, Horn, and Johnson recommend that schools abandon the use of computers altogether? The book states that computers have had little effect “save possibly to increase costs and draw resources away from other school priorities” (p. 72). Tell that to the special education teachers who use computers and swear by them, or the teachers of civics and current events for whom outdated textbooks are an inferior teaching tool compared to the Web, or the roughly 50% of high school science teachers who use “probes” to collect, display, and analyze lab data on computers, or the states like Virginia and Oregon that are making student assessments more efficient and useful by delivering the assessments online, or…the list is very long and includes many applications of digital tools not even hinted at in Disrupting Class.
What you should make of Disrupting Class
Disrupting Class comes along at a time when the topic of integrating technology in schools is more important than ever because technology is more mature and ubiquitous. But the book is disappointing.
Readers may learn something about the process of innovation from Disrupting Class, but they will not learn how creative school systems for years have been applying technology in precisely the ways that Disrupting Class recommends, namely to individualize learning, to make it more effective for greater numbers of students, and to offer alternatives to students who are not being served well by existing schools. Readers will learn little or nothing about how to fund online learning or other technology innovations. Nor will they find a vision of how cyber charter schools and similar innovations can co-exist with regular public schools without taking funds from them and leaving them less effective.
Disrupting Class urges schools to do better, but it provides few practical suggestions and gives almost no credit to tens of thousands of schools that have taken steps already.
This book review is excerpted from the white paper, “Lost in Cyberspace: A Review of Disrupting Class,” available at: concord.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/pdf/2008_DisruptingClass_WhitePaper.pdf.
1. See section (r) of http://www.myfloridahouse.gov/FileStores/ Web/Statutes/FS07/CH1011/Section_1011.62.HTM.