The front page of the New York Times last Sunday had the latest story on the current student debt problem. It’s really a symptom of an underlying problem, the growing cost of higher education (for a number of good pieces on the issue, you can check out the Times’s Economix blog on the topic of college costs). Students, and their parents, see value in having a college education, and in the absence of alternatives, they are willing to pay for it, even if it means taking on $100,000 in debt.
This of course creates what a businessman might call a “market opportunity”: create an equally good, cheaper alternative, and college as we know it will go the way of the dodo. Technology-based education is currently the favorite for producing that alternative. Sebastian Thrun’s open course at Stanford is just one example of technology making education cheaply and widely available; Khan Academy is another.
I’ve seen it suggested that e-learning, online lectures, etc., can’t replicate the experience, or be as high quality, as face-to-face learning. Not only face-to-face learning with a teacher, but also face-to-face learning with classmates, offers a personal learning experience that technology-based learning can’t replicate or replace–or so the argument goes.
I’ll leave aside the point that technology also can facilitate student-teacher or student-student interaction, because I want to suggest a different point. The point is this: it doesn’t matter if online education is as good as traditional learning, because it can win the battle even if it’s an inferior approach.
How so? I’ve been thinking this way because I recently read a New Yorker article on the ideas of business professor Clayton Christensen. Christensen writes about what he calls disruptive technologies. He wanted to find out why successful, established companies fail, and discovered that the disruptive technologies, the technologies that shake up an industry and drive out established players, are often inferior in many ways to existing technologies. His insight is summed up by the article in this way:
“…the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced–they were actually worse. The new products were dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. The customers of the big, established companies had no interest in them–why should they? They already had something better. But the new products were usually cheaper and easier to use, and so people or companies who were not rich or sophisticated enough for the old ones started buying the new ones, and there were so many more of the regular people than there were of the rich, sophisticated people that the companies making the new products prospered.”
And then, of course, as those lower-end companies prospered, they got better and better, while the high-end companies slowly lost–or rather, voluntarily surrendered–the lower-end market to their competitors…until that day when the new, low-end technology was the market, and the older companies went under.
I’m not the first person to see the parallels with education (in fact, in the article, Christensen makes the point himself). Nonetheless, the conjunction of the Times article and the New Yorker piece highlighted a new wrinkle for me: given the problems that the college system is facing, even an “inferior” alternative can drive the current system under. Many people have spoken about how technology will disrupt education (Edweek’s Digital Education blog even has a “Disruptive Technology” tag). However, whether it’s the superintendent of public education of Idaho insisting the technology is, in essence, a supplement to the existing educational system, or skepticism from the CEO of Cengage Learning about the “hype” surrounding edtech, the emphasis is often on how e-learning compares to traditional learning, and in particular, how it falls short. ”Can it match traditional formats of learning?” seems to be the question, and for some skeptics, the answer is “no” or at least “not yet.” But that misses Christensen’s point. E-learning doesn’t have to be as good as traditional learning to win out; it only has to be more accessible. Given that, it is possible that the disruption to the current educational system will come sooner than many people think.
I teach at what is sometimes called a “college prep school.” We sell ourselves, in part, as a way to prepare students for college, and to help them get into college. If college changes, or college as we know it disappears, the entire ecosystem of schools–public and private–that has grown up around college will disappear as well. So we need to think hard about what the potential disruption of college education by technology means, not just for colleges, but for secondary education and below as well.
Above all, it’s worth wrapping our heads around the idea that the system of education that emerges from the current technological churn may be demonstrably inferior, at least for a while, to what it replaces. Or to be more precise, the new system could be inferior in some ways while superior in others–say, improved access. Think of all those audiophiles who insisted that digital music couldn’t truly replicate the sound of analog recording (Neil Young once famously said that listening to digital music was like showering in ice cubes). Or those audiophiles who insisted that .mp3 files were demonstrably inferior in sound quality to non-compressed sound files. They were probably both right. And they lost the argument anyway, because .mp3′s are more convenient than CDs, tapes, or vinyl, and convenience won out over sound quality.
It’s also worth noting the obvious, that disruption offers an opportunity. It is perhaps misguided to go about trying to use technology to replicate traditional education. Why not play to the strengths of the new technology? If you’re going to disrupt, why not go all out? The point is that the new technology of education can take many forms; it would be a shame if it copies some of the worst of traditional education (such as the boring lecture), rather than reinventing education more thoroughly. But making sure that disruption “comes out right” will take some thought. Yes, I know lots of people are thinking about that already. But it’s worth saying it again.
So, what is at risk of being lost as traditional education is disrupted? What will be gained? And how can the losses be minimized, and the gains maximized? Above all, does disruption necessarily mean improvement?
UPDATE: Via Twitter, Mike Gwaltney clued me into this recent article at Bloomberg news, which makes some similar points the coming “college crackup,” as the headline terms it. Though the author is sanguine about the future of technology based education, he suggests that it’s not, ultimately, the quality of that education which will drive the change: “However effective face-to-face classes might be, the reality is that this traditional model is simply unaffordable to most students.”
Johnston Gates at Harvard University: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dozerbones/2487524948/
Students on laptop: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stanfordedtech/2358672238/