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Clayton Christensen is arguably the world's foremost expert on the impact that disruptive innovation can have on existing organizations. In "Disrupting Class" Christensen (and co-authors Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson) present a compelling case that within 10 years 50% of the courses secondary school students take will be computer delivered, and that by 2024 80% of courses will be taught online. These courses, according to Christensen, will provide customization that takes into account different intelligences and different learning styles. If Christensen's theory is correct -and there is a distinct possibility that it is- then our schools are likely to undergo huge transformative changes over the next 15 years. This is a place to discuss Christensen's theory and begin to think about how independent schools could manage the changes that may very well be heading our way.

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Listening to EdTech Talk 21st Century Learning #84 with Scott McLeod as I write.

It's kind of exciting, quite scary. As we watch the economy go south and wonder, Will things ever be the same again? teachers sometimes think that our world--our delivery model--is probably pretty secure and unlikely to change. But maybe it isn't, and Christensen seems to be guy who's saying this most loudly and clearly.

The question of why the tech folks are at the center of conversations about this is a large one, and as a non-tech person in my school role I wonder whether this discussion is at the moment somewhat marginalized because of the enthusiasm of techies somewhat to the exclusion of other curriculum leaders.

I suppose one question at the bottom of all this is, Why school? If it's just about learning stuff and learning how to do stuff, then tech-based learning--online and otherwise--can achieve pretty good efficiencies and presumably facilitate some excellent practical skill-building around collaboration and communication. But independent schools, many of them at least, claim to be about values and character--the mission statement as utopian vision--so what's the role of the institution at the heart of an online education vis-a-vis these values? Where is, or at least what is the future value of, the old ideal (maybe it was only a fantasy) of educators as role models as well as lecturers and test-givers (or guides and facilitators, for that matter)? Do adults, and the values and traditions of the institutions they represent and communities they create, have a role in digital or distance learning that is more than just the creators of curriculum and evaluators of student work?

I'm jumping way far ahead. This ought to be an interesting conversation, and thanks, Fred, for getting it going--PG
Hi Fred and everyone else,
Thanks you for setting up this forum. I agree that Disrupting Class is a very important book.
I am teaching a technology course for aspiring principals at Kean University in NJ and this book has been the centerpiece of our theoretical and policy discussions this semester.
Personally, I am very taken with Christensen's ideas about the potential (or real) growth of online courses in high schools and the notion that the era of change to be wrought in schools by educational technology is really just beginning now. The last 25 years or so have been just a prelude (my interpretation).
One thing that's been on my mind a lot lately has been the economy and how it may affect the kinds of prognostications made by Christensen, Pink, and to some extent even Friedman. All of them base a great deal of their argument on the premise that abundance has fundamentally changed the US and most of the developed world. Basically, I agree with that. However, we are no longer in an era of expansion, but one of contraction. We are not feeling abundant, nor will opportunities be as expansive in the next 5 years as they have been in the past 10.
Will this slow the spread of online courses and other disruptive innovations, or accelerate it? Will it slow the spread of technology, accelerate it, or actually cause both to happen at once (splintering along the fault line of a once again hyper-relevant digital divide based on access to broadband internet and cutting edge computers)?
In any event, I think a constant for independent schools will be that a certain fraction of the population will desire the physical opportunity to send young people to a place and the socialization that the independent school offers, as well as presumed access to better levels of higher education that independent schools provide. Those who can, will be willing to pay for that. The numbers of people who can do this though, will decline in the new economy. The net result for a number of independent schools may be difficulty in maintaining the academic quality of the student body due to a diminished market base. Unless endowment funds are sufficient to maintain a sufficiently high number of academically talented scholarship students, the overall talent pool at independent schools may begin to decline.
So, point number 1- independent schools will be there in the foreseeable future for those who can afford this type of education.
Looking at additional scenarios:
--The downturned economy and growth in online courses will likely produce continued enrollment pressure on independent schools. The percentage of students who pursue secondary education in public settings and in home-school type settings is likely to increase.

--Independent schools may

*Move toward more hybrid courses where the in-person experience is organized more around right brain activities of brainstorming, planning, problem-solving, synthesizing, and designing and the left brain activities of acquiring facts and algorithms, analyzing, and categorizing are done by way of online experiences and reading. This may lead to more things like negotiated learning contracts between students and teachers, more independent or small-group studies, different style class arrangements, and the creation of more student learning stations for extendend worktime in schools. School schedules will need to be modified, teachers will need to plan more collaboratively and in a more interdisciplinary way.
All of this will affect time allocations. A strain will be felt in athletics, as it becomes increasingly difficult to count of the late afternoon hours as exclusively the province of interscholastic athletics. More pressure for intramural and individual sports may arise.

*Move toward producing and marketing their own brand of online courses for consumption in the open marketplace. Online versions of independent school diplomas could compete very effectively in the marketplace for per capita student dollars as public funds for secondary schools start to flow more to students in the form of vouchers, rather than to school districts in the form of wholesale government subsidies. Consortia of independent schools could compete very effectively in this space and grow over time to include not only high school but university-level programs, adult continuing education, and more. {Anyone interested in exploring this?}

I'm tired now. Perhaps someone sees a thread here they'd like to pick up on.

Jim Lerman
formerly of the Dalton School
Think the open content curriculum concept is certainly one way for independent schools to solidify their "brand" by offering something truly valuable and distinctive in the on-line educational marketplace. The technology is there; all that's missing is the will to make it happen, either one school at a time or, as you suggest, by consortium. MIT and Yale do a bit of this now, and MIT's open courseware, even though it's not really all designed for online learning, could become the global standard. Why shouldn't Pencey Prep's open courseware become the same for secondary education?

I also agree that there will always be a place for essentially all meat-space schools, with their sports, their plays, and their at least superficially traditional ways of being. I do wonder whether at worst these might become a kind of uber-elite, like the British boarding schools in the days when there were just a handful of credible ones preparing the lads for Oxbridge

One challenge as education goes largely online will be to ride herd on the actual progress of individual kids; imagine the challenges posed by a student taking a half-dozen courses from different providers--there'll be money to made, perhaps, in some sort of "certified public registrar" sites, where students' credits and work can be banked in an organized fashion to be presented to some authority to obtain a diploma; someone will have to decide what actually constitutes a "diploma" in this brave new world, or even whether such progress markers are necessary.

Ah, so many things to think about--PG

Be forewarned, I love the ingredients as much as the overall recipe, which means in this post I'm picking up on the details, and jumping around a bit.

One avenue is for schools (perhaps more public than independent?) to become community centers, taking responsibility for organizing sports teams, theatre productions, art shows, concerts, and the like. Faculty mentors would be available for students wanting/needing human interaction and guidance, be it for online courses or any other type of assistance. On-premise classes would also be offered for those who prefer to learn in classroom/group type settings.

Classes, online and on-premise, would take place throughout the day and evening to accommodate individual body rhythms. Media centers would exist in these community centers to facilitate productions (radio/tv type shows, movie making, etc), provide online access for those who did not have it at home, courses in media (understanding it, generating it, using it), and satisfying other needs for the community. This would very much be a practical, experiential portion of the center. Art, music, performance – all of these would have centers (one center?) where students could learn and practice and create.

School would no longer just be for students of a certain age. Particularly in areas where not every resident had the benefit of higher education, or where there was an older population wanting to keep their minds fit, or where the residents wanted to keep their education current, folks would have the same access to the resources of the community center as the "kids".

As for Peter's thoughts about how to manage the progress of students taking many courses from different providers – if each student had a mentor at the community center, the mentor would be responsible for managing each student's progress along with the student, making it a much more collaborative process than currently exists.

The adult mentors would be able to participate as learners, as well, thus modeling lifelong learning and engagement. Professional development would become a normal, everyday practice, rather than something set aside for a few days out of the year. Everyone would become more involved in the local community, beyond the physical space.

Will independent schools become highly specialized, to the point where the 4 independent schools in our area that are within 15 or so miles of one another no longer be pretty much the same but become quite different, and not all survive?

I haven't read Christensen's book yet (it's coming my way next ;-) but am intrigued by the possibilities. Perhaps I'm just describing my ideal vision of a school, and perhaps it isn't at all where independent schools will go, but it is exhilarating to consider the possibilities. Essentially, if the way of getting information is going to radically change, what can we dream up that enhances the way the consolidation of that information into knowledge and understanding takes place? And how can/will that impact the communities in which this happens?

Long and (perhaps) wordy on a late, rainy night :-)
I like the community center and mentor idea; it goes back to what some of the more radical progressive schools founded in the 60s and 70s were hoping to do and what a few more contemporary pilots and charters have been able to; I did some work at Fayerweather Street School in our area a few years back, and that was a big part of their founding history. Insofar as independent schools form a kind of de facto community now for many parents and guardians, the leap would not be so great. Geography and its socioeconomic manifestations could be an issue, though--I wonder if the community center-schools of this future would be more socioeconomically and culturally homogeneous than the diverse schools we have worked so hard to create.

In my younger days I was puzzled and then later impressed by one European model for delivering sports and recreation services--the "town club," to which kids and adults could belong and that provided the site and coaching for sports teams, meaning that school's did not have to do this. The model didn't solve the time of day problem (schools in the US will never start later if that cuts into afternoon practice time, I think--at least until all schools have astroturf and lights, which seems to be a slowly building trend even in staid, grassy New England), but it removed the element of competition for kids' time and energy between school sports and town sports. Comprehensive clubs offer levels of coaching and competition, even intramurals.

I also think your interage idea is pretty wonderful. Lasell College down the road from us built a giant residence facility for older folks a few years back, and part of the deal with living there is a requirement (as I understand it) to take a course or two each year at the college. (Truth to tell, this also allowed the school to gain tax-exempt status for a money-making proposition.) As our population ages, better education ideas than the "lectures on DVD" thing (okay in its way, I guess) will be needed.

My copy of the book shows up from Amazon tomorrow, so that's my reading over the long weekend as my spouse buries herself ever more deeply in comment-writing. I started Innovator's Dilemma last night--Barnes & Noble next door to school did have that one. Boy, am I in thrall to big chain bookstores; hate that!

It's raining cats and dogs here, too--PG
Am almost finished reading Ken Robinson's the Element, and I came across a bit that speaks to the idea mentioned above, that of community centers. Robinson mentions the Jenks school district in Oklahoma and their partnership with the Grace Living Center across the street from one of the schools. A preschool (enclosed in walls of glass, with an opening at the top to let the sounds of childhood percolate into the Living Center) has been set up within the Grace Living Center, and the residents of the center are participants in teaching the children to read.

Robinson talks about the benefits that are accruing to participants at both ends of the age spectrum: an appreciation on the part of the children for elder folks, hearing about life in the community from 'way back when', having an audience for the children to read to, having a one-on-one person to read to each child, the elder folks taking less and less medications as they become more and more involved with the children and the reading program.

This is a learning community!

For more, check out these articles:
Intergenerational Center Boosts Reading, Social Skills at Oklahoma ..., March/April 2005

Grace Living Centers – People Article: Why We're Unique – Forever Young, January 13, 2003

Transcript of CNN May 1, 2002 interview – Grace Living Center in Jenks, Oklahoma is School and Nursing Home

Does anyone know of other communities like this?

Cheers, Laurie
Amen - Ken has discussed this before. This is the kind of educational center that we (Indpendent Schools) do need to explore. There are public schools (Hartford CT) that are dong the same thing. There is a charter school open 6AM to 9PM that includes an adult learning center and an ESL school for children and adults. I don't have the details - I'll search them out and post them later.

Hi David,

Wow, I'd love info on the schools (public and private) in Hartford that are doing this, as it is close enough that maybe I could wrangle a visit to see what's cooking.

Thanks for posting/looking into this!
Cheers, Laurie
Hi Laurie

If you want to learn more about online schools, check out They are the largest provider with public schools in 20 states and an international private school with students in 34 countries.
Hi again,

Here is more on the Grace Living Center partnership with the Jenks school in this American Profile story School of a Lifetime.

Also, some additional links (thanks, again, to Robinson's book) that might be of interest/use to this discussion:
• Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Mentoring Project Who Mentored You
International Telementor Program
• case study of Grangeton, an experiential "town" created by/at Grange Primary school in England
A+ Schools, one way of setting up public schools

What continues to amaze me is that there are some interesting approaches to education going on, each most likely "just right" for the culture/geographic area of their location. It reminds me that in the best of all educational worlds, there is not a "one size fits all" approach or method or system. The key, as always, is finding the best match for the learner and the learning environment. I suppose, to borrow from the title of Ken Robinson's book, it is finding "the Element" for the learner and their learning environment.

Thoughts on a snowy Sunday…
Cheers, Laurie

Lots of very interesting ideas in your post. My intuition -or perhaps "my hope" would be more accurate- is that your scenario of independent schools moving toward a model of more hybrid courses seems like a positive way forward. However, is it a likely way forward?

I see very little evidence of schools moving in this direction. Christensen would argue that the value networks within which schools are embedded will resist innovations that are considered disruptive toward the existing "successful" practices of the school. If his theory holds true, the customers of our schools, our families, will not be supportive of disruptive change but instead will ask us to do more of what we are already doing and, if possible, do it better.

So we see things like increasing numbers of teachers with PhDs, increasing numbers of students taking AP courses, more computers, more efforts to evaluate teachers, calls for more and better reporting, more security, more support services, more diversity, more sustainability, more plastic playing fields, more course offerings, etc.. but nothing that challenges the essential elements of the current school structure.

Again, following Christensen's theory, it seems likely that disruptive change will need to come from outside the existing schools. The ONLY approach Christensen found that consistently worked for organizations facing disruptive change is to spin off small independent subsidiaries that are free to fully embrace and develop the disruptive innovation. These subsidiaries, when successful, end up subsuming and transforming the parent organization.

Anyone have any ideas what a small independent spin off from an independent school might look like?

I think as hybrid and online courses become more widespread outside of ind. schools, some parents will begin to ask, "Why don't we have these too?" Just as you describe ind. schools adding more of everything, they'll add some of these too...when it become fashionable to do so. This will happen not out of a desire to "challenge the essential elements of the current school structure," but actually, as Christensen describes them, as sustaining innovations to "improve" the already existing structure.

Seems to me there's more traction for the direction you seem to want to head toward in the last paragraph of my little treatment -- some schools setting up online divisions that become almost subsidiaries of the main, bricks-and-mortar brand. There are a significant number of public high schools moving in this direction, particularly in rural areas where enrollments are shrinking. They see online as a way to get more students from anywhere.

Seems to me further that the idea of transforming the nature of educational practice in mature ind. schools is kind of an oxymoron. Many of these schools have been doing what they've been doing for quite some time, and by most metrics are quite successful at it. Their students are accepted by the "best" universities and parents and alumni continue to give handsomely to build their endowments. Applications for entrance remain at high multiples of available spaces. Save for a charismatic, evangelical, ambitious head of school, there is no real constituency for transformative change in mature ind. schools. On the other hand, starting a new school presents a golden opportunity. Yet the examples of the Ross school in Long Island, the School at Columbia Univ (an interesting experiment), and the soon to open Greenwich Village HIgh school suggest that even in these settings, change will only be incremental at best.

Where Christensen's argument is strongest I think, is in its potential to predict the impending downfall of pubic secondary education as it is practiced in bricks-and-mortar schools today. Young educators in these schools should be looking for new ways to earn a living, because the schools they work in now will very likely be transformed into vastly different organizations in the next 5-10 years.

Just my 2 cents. (It's nice to get the chance to talk about this stuff)


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