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Learning at its Best

Online Education is Not the Disruption

Originally posted on the Edunautics blog recently returned from the first ever Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools (OESES) conference in Southern California. Overall a pretty good conference, and on a topic that all schools need to be looking at seriously as they plan for the future. While I am interested in the topic of online education, and I think that it is important to stay abreast of the latest developments in all learning spaces and trends, what I was struck most with was my aversion to thinking about online education as the disruption that education needs to move to bring it to the next level of efficiency and efficacy.

I’ve actually been meaning to write this blog post ever since reading Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson. The premise of the book, and indeed of the conference (Michael Horn keynoted) is that online education is the growing disruption that will — and needs to — alter the heart of our education systems. I disagree. Of course, online learning, and computer adaptive learning, and all of these tools will surely be a part of education and learning going forward, but they are not to my mind (and using the terminology of Disrupting Class) the “disruptive innovations” that will alter the heart of education and “save” it. Rather, they threaten to be sustaining innovations that simply move a broken pedagogy of learning from meat space to online space without changing the part that is broken. To my mind, the disruptive innovation that will change education is the movement from relevant (at best) to real. Simply taking AP U.S. History online does not make that program a better program. Recreating the siloed knowledge and cram-and-regurgitate structure of much of our education system into online space does little to move education in the direction it needs to go. What our children need is to explore their world in meaningful ways, guided by expert learners who can help develop the critical skills necessary to be able to adapt and thrive in a world of wicked problems and ever-changing knowledge spaces. Of course, this needs to be done using important content as the bricks to build with, but the idea that simply cramming this content into heads via the computer is going to change things significantly for the better is worse than mistaken, because it will take much-needed resources away from looking at the real problem. Yes, let’s continue to look at how online learning develops, and how our institutions of learning can leverage it for our students, but let’s also look at how we can create opportunities for our students to use technology in ways that extend out of real need as they solve real problems.

A virtual fist bump here to Jenifer Fox, whose session at the conference was a breath of fresh air. Jennifer is head of school at The Clariden School of Southlake, and author of Your Child’s Strengths: a Guide for Parents and Teachers. In her session, Jenifer painted a fiery, revolutionary vision of children learning the skills and content they need to know and have experience with by engaging in real problems and projects with real impact on their community. Go Jenifer!

I have been convinced for a long time that the needed revolution in learning is not more efficiency in the current dominant pedagogy, but rather a move toward the real. This conference only reinforced my feelings on that subject. The revolution is Real.

About Aaron Eden

What's your Give? I think that is a critical question in everything we do. What value are we creating? The core of my work is educating for a sustainable future. Value-oriented learning. Community-integrated learning. Social entrepreneurship. Emergent, inquiry-driven, entrepreneurial learning. I've spent the last 20 years designing and facilitating face-to-face and online learning experiences and co-creative processes that help individuals and organizations develop the skills and attributes to transform themselves and the world. I have extensive experience in instructional and learning experience design, innovation, and technology spaces.


9 thoughts on “Online Education is Not the Disruption

  1. Mr. Eden,

    Thanks for reading our book. But let me respectfully suggest that you are missing the point about disruption. What technology brings to the education scene is not substituting computing devices for traditional sources of education, but the opportunity (finally) to personalize learning opportunities. A technology platform makes personalization (based on different interests, aptitudes, achievement goals, paces of learning) plausible and affordable. It also is the only way we will ever close the gaps about which there is so much hand-wringing. I hope you will continue to think about this.

    Curtis Johnson

    Posted by Curtis Johnson | February 5, 2013, 8:40 pm
    • An unspecified “technology platform” is the “ONLY” way we will “EVER” close those unspecified gaps…? Those are mighty big claims (and vague ones) for someone who believes in innovation. The writer of this post is onto something. Technology can expand and intensify learning, or it can be reductive and limiting (coughPearsoncough), if lucrative for the purveyors of tests and canned programs. The ed tech models touted so far by Bill Gates and Jeb Bush and their hirelings are going to hurt kids, not help them, narrow the student’s world, not expand it. Meanwhile the taxpayers get robbed and the K-12’s of the world get rich.

      Posted by icompleat | February 6, 2013, 1:06 pm
    • Dear Curtis (I hope you don’t mind if we move to a first name basis :-),
      I greatly appreciate your perspective, and should make clear here — if I didn’t above — that Disrupting Class is an excellent and important book, especially for the skillful way that the idea of disruption was brought to the area of education. I do see the power of adaptive learning, and I think it will add great efficiency to some parts of learning; I just don’t think it is THE disruption education needs right now. Even more important, to my mind, is getting our kids, from as early on as possible, taking part in our society by solving real problems with real effect, working with advanced learners who can help teach them how to learn. Now, I think that adaptive and other technologies can play an important role in that new paradigm, but if we do not as a society make that value transition, then adaptive learning will be used only to improve basic test scores, not deliver the kinds of experience and learning our kids — and our society — really need.

      To be fair, Chapters 7 and 8 in your book — on motivation and research, respectively — do make a good argument for some re-thinking of the goals of our education system, and critical skills and the like, but I don’t think the technology itself will give us the shift we need. We already could be doing learning with more autonomy, mastery, and purpose (to reference Daniel Pink), but most of our schools are not. That, to me, is the disruption we really need. Online learning and adaptive technology can be a tool to help further those goals, but the re-evaluation of the goals themselves is the most critical piece, I think. How we end up using this technology will ultimately determine whether it is sustaining or disruptive, at least according to what I think are the most important things to measure.

      All that said, I’m totally open to be proven wrong. I can’t claim to know everything that technology will bring in the future, but I have yet to see an online or adaptive learning experience that — on its own — can begin to compare to inquiry-based, failure rich, social learning for deep retention and understanding of content and development of critical skills.

      Now I realize this is all a bit rhetorical and pie in the sky, so I do need to go on record as saying that I think adaptive and other technologies will be hugely important in the next ten and twenty years in raising test scores, which is not at all unimportant. I just hope we raise that bar even higher.

      Again, I really appreciate your work, and you taking the time to comment here!

      Posted by Aaron Eden | February 6, 2013, 7:29 pm
  2. Aaron – thank for your sharing this reflection on schooling, Disrupting Class, and the conference. I’d argue that anything that keeps kids where they are in school – seated ast desks inside classrooms doing assigned work – cannot be innovative, disruptive, or authentic and democratic work.

    What are some of the real-life problems and tools sets you would like tp share with your students?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 6, 2013, 7:04 am
    • Thanks for your comment, Chad. I think all real problems (age appropriate) are important for kids to experience and learn from. I’m a big fan of studio or thematic learning, where small groups of kids work with advanced learners as facilitators to tackle real problems that have real impact and need in the community, and not in simulated 45 minute blocks. I think that nearly all content can be learned this way, and that this is the only way to generate skilled learners and problem solvers — and critically important — citizens. I sense we share some feelings on this 🙂

      Posted by Aaron Eden | February 6, 2013, 7:35 pm
      • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Aaron – oftentimes we get caught up in our own interests in the studio; I’m interested in spiraling our PBL work through levels of student readiness to work on challenges that impact their communities.

        All the best,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | February 10, 2013, 6:12 pm
  3. …this is quite an interesting educational issue of concern to follow especially in some parts of the third word where moderrn innovative padagogies in schools is still a pipe-dream let alone online or e-learning. I would love to read more!

    Posted by Ptang'uny P. Cheworei | February 6, 2013, 10:30 am
  4. Aaron I loved what you have to say. I agree with how the technology is not necessarily the disruption in the classroom. I also enjoyed how you said that classrooms should not be so focused on having the students just give back an answer to the teacher that has been nailed into their heads, but to think things through. Also, we should not just rely on the technology. Good post.

    Posted by Caroline Mitchell | February 9, 2015, 12:10 am


  1. Pingback: Disruptive Innovation at Universities… and Science Societies | ISSST2013 - Sustainable Systems & Technologies - February 13, 2013

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