Impediments to progress in revolutionizing education, why Clayton Christensen was right, change will come from the outside

Posted at 12:18 pm on 02/14/2018 by Rahul Razdan

Clayton Christensen is well-known for documenting the impact of disruptive technologies and companies into the existing ecosystem. Nearly always, the story consists of an upstart in a massive market which everyone is convinced will never upset the business models of the titans of the day. Examples include E-commerce (e.g. Amazon) for the whole retail sector or internet companies for the physical media companies, and others.

The titans of the day can see the change coming but still cannot change. Why? Often change involves deep structural modifications within the organization and typically, the fundamental business model. One must manage this change while transitioning from the old business model. This is almost an impossible task because it is akin to changing the engine while the car is running. Thus, the process of change is externally-driven by creative destruction; the new model comes from the outside and the old model declines.

As we have discussed in previous articles (HERE) or the TED Talk (HERE), the current educational system largely views students as commodities into which knowledge is poured, similar to an industrial manufacturing process. The fundamental structure of the current model is driven by an economic imperative from the last century based on the scarcity of the instructor and classroom --which is actually no longer true. Also, the actual process of teaching occurs in a craftsman-like model which has not changed for hundreds of years.

Disruptive alternatives focused on self-paced competency-based education have been making steady progress (Univ. of Arizona, FLVS). The key components of these alternatives are:

  1. The scarcity of the classroom is no longer is in issue due to internet delivery of content.
  2. Lectures and large parts of assessment are automated so that a teacher's time is focused on one-on-one interaction.
  3. For the first time in hundreds of years, the actual process of teaching is being broken away from the craftsman model. The critical aspects of the teaching function are being broken down and outsourced/delegated to specialists. As an example, instruction materials are developed by copywriters and graphic artists -- in addition to the subject matter expert.

Will today’s K-12 or post-secondary institutions be able to adapt to this new model?

There is a great deal of reason to believe that it will be very difficult for them to change and compete. Consider the delivery differences between the two models:


Conventional ModelDisruptive Model
StaffMust be localAvailable Worldwide
Working ModelTeacher as craftsman, typically regulated under union contracts.Professional Teams, Separation of development and delivery.
AccessSchool Hours, Weather dependent24/7
InvestmentBuildingsInternet Resources
ScalabilityLimited by Physical ResourcesLimited by worldwide teacher bandwidth
AvailabilityLocalWorld-wide

There are deep differences between the delivery structures of the two models. It is difficult to envision existing K-12 school systems being able to adapt to this new model. For universities, there is an additional constraint around the resource conflicts of the faculty research and teaching models.

Thus, it is very likely that disruption will come from start-ups (public and private) and non-traditional education players. For them, the strategic drivers are significant but they do not have the dead weight of supporting the previous model. Also, they can easily reach across physical boundaries (nations, states, etc.) to provide services at scale with high quality and low cost.

Finally, two changes in governance would significantly accelerate this whole process.

  1. Certification Independence: If certification is separated from the model of education, the two models can operate on an even playing field. As an example, the high school diploma would not be a based on attendance but on passing a series of tests.
  2. Facilities Independence: Conventional schools integrate facilities and teaching. If these services were separated, all citizens of the locality would have access. Physical location, security, cafeteria services, and even athletic services would be available as separate components. Again, this would even the playing field for the disruptive model.

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