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McCain: Education’s Disruptor-in-Chief?

October 21, 2008

For a candidate who’s been criticized as being out of touch on technology, Senator John McCain [R-Ariz.] has been refreshingly ahead of the curve when it comes to disruptive innovation in education.

While Republican Presidential candidate McCain and the Democratic candidate, Senator Barack Obama [D-Ill.], both see the benefits of using technology in revamping how classrooms run, McCain’s campaign early on embraced the benefits of nontraditional online education in some key ways.

Whichever candidate prevails on Nov. 4,, the most successful educational policies will be those that approach education challenges from an innovation perspective.

Customization Is Key One of the core reasons schools struggle is because their structure compels standardization in the way they teach and test. This standardized, monolithic experience would be fine if all students learned in the same way. But as we know from our own experience, we all learn in different ways. Different things motivate different people, we each have different intelligence strengths and learning styles, and people learn at different paces. Standardization in schools therefore will not do the trick. We need customization.

Technology allows for the possibility of an escape from this standardization. For example, computer-based learning is inherently modular and can be highly student-centric. It can let each student learn in his or her preferred mode and at his or her preferred pace, thereby building motivation and engagement and improving outcomes.

For student-centric learning technology to have this effect, however, it must be implemented disruptively. A disruptive innovation transforms an industry not by competing against the existing paradigm and serving existing customers, but by targeting those who have no other option and are not being served, people we call “nonconsumers.”

Computers Haven’t Changed Classrooms Little by little, disruptive innovations predictably improve. At some point, they become good enough to handle more complicated problems, and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

The reason computers have not had a significant impact on schools is that we have crammed them into traditional classrooms and in computer labs as a tool and topic of instruction. We have spent well over $60 billion during the last two decades equipping schools with computers, yet the basic classroom has changed little. This is the natural path most organizations take in all walks of life. The key is that we need to allow computer-based learning to take root in places where the alternative is no learning at all. Only then will computer-based learning have a true impact on education.

This is already beginning to take place, just as the theory of disruption would predict. Online learning is gaining hold in the advanced courses that many schools are unable to offer; in small, rural, and urban schools that are unable to offer breadth; in remedial courses for students who must retake courses in order to graduate; with home-schooled students and those who can’t keep up with the regular schedule of school; and for those who need tutoring. Online enrollments are up from 45,000 in 2000 to 1 million today, as organizations like Apex Learning and Florida Virtual School lead the way. The budget crunches that schools are increasingly facing should only serve to increase the trend.

Disruption Is Good McCain has incorporated online learning into his education reform plan in some significant ways. His Presidential platform proposes to alter how the federal government currently spends money on technology in schools to help move away from the traditional cramming method toward a more disruptive approach.

Part of his plan proposes to reform the Enhancing Education Through Technology program. This would reallocate $500 million in existing federal funds for technology to build new virtual schools and help develop online course offerings. In addition, his plan would allocate $250 million through a competitive grant program to help states expand the availability of Advanced Placement math, science, and computer-science courses online, build online tutoring support for students in traditional schools, and offer online foreign-language courses, all classic areas of nonconsumption in many public schools.

He has also proposed $250 million in Digital Passport Scholarships to help low-income students pay for online tutors or enroll in virtual courses, again targeting prime areas of nonconsumption. Perhaps this targeting of nonconsumption is not surprising since one of his education advisers has stated publicly that McCain finds compelling the approach we have laid out in our recently published book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

Escape from Standardization Obama’s campaign, on the other hand, initially dismissed virtual courses by saying they would be unaccountable, even though there is actually far more potential to capture exactly what a student is doing and learning in an online environment than in the traditional system. Since then, however, he has embraced a vision where technology could help transform schooling to help customize an education for each child’s distinct needs and escape from standardization.

The vision Obama described in a Sept. 9 speech was rich and relied on many technologies. It even imagined a new role for teachers where they would migrate from being the central source of knowledge to a learning coach for children. It is an exciting vision, but its success relies on the established classroom changing the way it operates.

Both McCain and Obama must realize that we won’t make any breakthrough transformations in education by taking partial steps. Cramming promising innovations into the existing learning model simply won’t do the trick.

If we implement technology innovations disruptively, however, we can realize the rich and varied learning experiences that the candidates imagine, escape the standardization that we all decry, and benefit all of our nation’s students in the future.




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