Discussing Disruption and the Future of Edtech with Michael Horn, Part 2

Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and serves as the executive director of its education program. In 2008, he co-authored the award-winning book, Disrupting Class: How Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

edtech, disruption, Michael Horn

Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and serves as the executive director of its education program.

Q: Looking at all the various levels of education, including corporate training, higher education, secondary and primary education, where do you see the most disruptive changes taking place?

R: In many ways the corporate training market had its first wave of disruption in the late 90’s and early 2000’s during the first dot com boom. We are now to the point where we are seeing a version 2.0 of that disruption in corporate learning markets with folks like Rukuku helping people create online courses quickly, take many courses, meet training needs internally, find employees or whatever it might be. Secondarily we are seeing activity in a lot of informal spaces, like the skill-based companies that are popping up. So, I think we are starting to see a second disruption take place in the corporate learning world.

Massive disruption is definitely happening in higher education, less in respect to MOOCS at this point and more from places like Southern New Hampshire University that has introduced competency-based online learning program. University Now has one of my favorite competency-based online learning programs, as well as Western Governor’s University. Players like that are creating a wave 2.0 of disruption in the higher ed space. In K12, a lot is going on but it is more at the classroom level and less at the whole school level. I don’t see a lot that leads me to believe that schools are going to get disrupted anytime soon.

Q: Personalization is a big selling point for Edtech. Each student can learn at his or her own pace. How does that fit with traditional idea of the classroom environment?

R:  I think the traditional classroom environment is going to struggle quite a bit.  It was built to batch up students, lecture to them in the same way at the same pace and so forth, and therefore it is inherently not suited for this personalizing learning world. Traditional institutions are adopting some of these innovations and layering them over the traditional classroom. I think we are going to struggle to see the dramatic leaps in personalization that we might from online learning simply because it’s not what those schools and colleges are trying to do or were built to do.

Q: Do we sacrifice anything in terms of social education, the general getting along with people sort of stuff?

R: In the K-12 arena and primary schools in particular, the majority of the growth in online learning is happening in blended learning environments. The reasons for that are straight-forward as opposed to higher education. Students at that age really need a safe place to go and learn. That’s a large part of the reason we are seeing this current blend of learning.

One of the surprises as I walk into blended learning schools is the amount of socialization taking place. Students might be working individually at their computers but they are constantly bouncing up to peer tutor each other and answer questions. It frees up the teacher to spend more time setting up projects with small group instructions for students to work on with each other.

In many ways, the traditional education system does the socialization job pretty poorly because if you remember back to the experiences a lot of us had in middle school, at least for me, a lot of the social stuff that was going on was pretty negative in nature, such as passing notes around, trying to get out of the lecture with other students, and destructive things like that. What I have been stunned by is how much the interactions I have seen in these blended learning environments are really positive social ones structured around learning. I think it’s enormously more productive.

Q; You’ve written much about the difficulties for universities to manage both research and teaching. Do you anticipate these two functions diverging?

R: Outside of the elite universities, I think that is correct. Those functions will really get unbundled and people will realize that the best researching places are not in fact the best teaching places. Activities can be done differently because information doesn’t have to be centralized and so closely bundled with research anymore.

It’s an open question on what will happen in the elite universities. The major question that people are not talking about as traditional institutions change is about research. What is the right model to incentivize really good research in a sustainable fashion going forward? It’s not clear to me that the current university model is right one. It’s a very serious question for the world because so many great advances come out of the basic research done in these places. How can we make that even better?

Q: Would that have implications for intellectual property rights?

R: Yes, absolutely. People have not given deep thought to what parts of university research should be able to be monetized. It is property that you really create and intellectual ownership gives great incentives. Other research may not rise to that level or may be in such an early stage that actually having a more open source look at it would be more useful.

Q: What people or profession do you see being most radically changed by technological changes?

R: I think it’s going to be difficult, to be candid. There will be lots of roles for teachers. In fact, the number of teachers may even increase. But as we have traditionally defined them, the mid-level professors that are really focused on research and view teaching as a convoluted part of the job, often having to make these weird tradeoffs between the two. That function may go away in the years ahead and I think it will be a difficult transition.

Q: What can students and parents do to take advantage of some of the opportunities offered by online learning?

R: It’s a huge opportunity for parents right now to really be able to drive their children’s education, to navigate all the low cost opportunities and be able to expose their children to so many opportunities that previously were limited by their zip codes.

My colleague Heather Staker has written a fair amount about this and about how parents can opt out of some of the traditional ways of doing education and think about this in much more expansive and exciting ways. I think it’s an unbridled opportunity for enterprising parents.

For students who are trying to excel in schools, MOOCs could be interesting also. For example, if I am a high school student, I suspect passing MIT physics would look more impressive to a college than getting a five on the AP exam. So, thinking about how to harness those opportunities is quite interesting.

Q:  Any other interesting trends that you feel like deserve more attention?

R:  I would add that, in K12, we are seeing tremendous growth in blended learning. The question is, how do we help districts manage this growth in smarter ways to incentivize a focus on student outcomes? At the higher ed levels I think lot of the oxygen has been taken out by what’s going to happen to traditional institutions or MOOCs that have been affiliated with traditional institutions. An interesting question is: how do we shed more light on what some of these alternative mechanisms are for creating programs that are useful for students? And lastly, how do we help people understand that in a lot of these contexts, employers really are the end customers? A lot of the work, like Rukuku does, in connecting those nodes is something that has been overlooked somewhat in the dialogue.

Straight out of the box: Testing ‘cognitively demanding’ tasks

Last post on these PISA results, I promise. As I mentioned last week. US students are not great at applying math to real world problems. But, according to the OECD’s report, students in the US are good at “reading data directly from tables and diagrams – requiring students only to understand a short text and read single values directly from a representation provided such as a table or bar diagram.”

PISA, OECD, United States

Standardized tests attempt to assess more complicated thinking.

Wow. Seems US students are good at reading charts. They are also good at taking information directly from tables and inserting numbers into formulas already given to them. In other words, the super boring stuff. They are less good at applying any of those numbers and formulas to real world problems; that outside the box type of stuff.

This makes one wonder, or at least makes me wonder, if our strength on easy stuff and difficulty with hard stuff might ironically result from our emphasis on standardized tests. The teach-to-the-test approach seems like it would offer students a whole bunch of opportunities to read from charts and plug stuff into formulas without necessarily connecting any of that to real world situations. In other words, maybe we’ve been going for the low hanging fruit by banging these simple processes into students’ heads.

The US does seem to test more often than other countries. In the US, 80% of students attend schools where student data is posted publically and virtually all students in the US attend schools that track achievement data over time. Those numbers compare with OECD averages of 45% and 72%, respectively. For a country with weak math skills, we do seem to love our data.

Does having all that data mean we are testing more? Maybe not, but probably it does. The report also notes that the US is one of the only countries that relies not only on testing at the national level, but at regional and other levels also.

The Common Core was designed to help us improve our scores. I hope it does. Well, I hope it helps us improve our analytical skills, thus improving our scores. The OECD seems to think it will help and mentions the new standards multiple times throughout the report. A shift from plugging numbers into formulas to more “cognitively demanding” tasks should clearly be a welcome one.

Still, I wonder if any standardized test can really capture the important skills involved in “outside of the box” thinking.  And if not, then how do we determine whether our educational policies are really working? Any opinions on this from our readers?

I Think, Therefore I Am…. Employable?

What should be the purpose of undergraduate education?

College costs are going up. We’ve written about that a lot here on our blog and so has everyone else anywhere that covers education. These skyrocketing costs have prompted much soul-searching and more number crunching for students, professors, administrators, and policymakers.  What is the value of college? And is it worth it?

educational cost, employmeny

What should be the goals of an undergraduate education? Who should decide them?

Undergraduate degree holders earn about $500,000 more over a lifetime compared to students with only a high school diploma, as we discussed last month in this post. Still a good deal overall. In this post, I want to put the numbers aside for a moment and ask the deeper question, what should a college education be about and how much freedom should the student have in determining that?

As an undergrad, I attended a special presentation by the philosophy department that was loosely themed, “Why it is not totally crazy to major in philosophy?” The primary speaker, a professor, offered several lofty goals for four years of higher education, finding oneself, thinking critically, that sort of stuff.

Then he added, as a final point, marketable skills. It was a bit of a buzzkill for us unrealistic, I mean idealistic, types. This professor had a simple solution, though. Take some computer science classes. Seriously, that was his advice, not a CS major or minor, just some classes. It seemed a strange point to hear from a philosophy prof, but looking back, gosh, I wish I had listened.

Last week, the New York Times Magazine offered some insight on the same topic in its article, “How to Get a Job With a Philosophy Degree.” The article, which I recommend reading, highlights some of the ways in which schools are trying to help undergraduate students, especially those in liberal arts majors, develop marketable skills for the post-graduation job search.

The article’s author, Susan Dominus, cites the example of group research and presentations incorporated into a Japanese history class, with the goal being the development of teamwork skills. She brings up an interesting point, though. What about students that simply want to learn, in the classic, academic sense, about Japanese history? Does group work contribute to or distract from their goals? And who makes that determination?

The question was less important when college was cheaper and data less plentiful. Even though recent reforms may bring college costs down, or at least slow the growth in prices, the success of graduates in finding jobs will be even more important. The government will measure it and potentially tie the universities’ eligibility for federal funds to that, among other measures. For these reasons, universities will care about employability even if students don’t.

So what happens to that classic, long-haired, knowledge-loving liberal arts guy that is a staple of freshman dorms everywhere? Well, he’ll probably still be there. But the question is, where will he be by senior year and where will that take him in the years that follow? The answer is not only important to him, who likely has debt related to his education, but to his university as well, which relies on his success in finding a job for its own federal funding.

Student Data and the Dark Side

Part 2: This will be on your permanent record.

As most people know, the deal with all this cool, new technology we get is often something like, you guys go ahead take this stuff for free and we’re going to keep track of what you do with it and where you are when you use it and who your friends are that you are using it with, and also your friends that you are not using it with, and oh yea, we may email you some ads or throw some ads along the side of your browser now and then. And we won’t share any info with the government unless they ask for it.

educational data, data mining, advertising

We don’t know yet the extent to which educational data will follow students into the future.

For some reason, that seems ok for most people. I include myself in that group, though I am still holding out on a few app updates because they’ve all starting asking for access to my contact list. Why do they need that for an app on bartending recipes? Maybe they just want to make sure I’m not drinking alone, but I suspect something more sinister. Still, I’ll probably give in before the end of next week. It’s annoying to be constantly reminded that the updates are available.

But our children, darn it. They are not old enough to be selling off their souls so easily. Imagine if companies find out that some students struggle with math. They may start advertising tutoring programs. Or they may start advertising video games with low monthly payments and high interest rates. Ok, they probably can’t do that, but being bad at math does make someone attractive to advertisers for all sorts of reasons.

Looking long term, there is that data set known ominously to students as “your permanent record.” Is there a chance of any of this stuff leaking out to colleges or potential employers or even the local gossip groups? No, never, educators and tech companies say. And I do my best to believe them. But it’s something of which we should be conscious.

Luckily, some people are. Lawmakers in Massachusetts, for example, introduced a bill early this year to prevent companies from data-mining student emails. Meanwhile, organizations like Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) are filing complaints with the FTC to protect kids from seeing too many advertisements in their educational apps.

Good work, guys. We’ll probably need more of that sort of work and soon, because the norms of privacy change quickly and rarely when we are ready.