Tuesday, October 21, 2008

McCain: Education's Disruptor-in-Chief?

McCain: Educations Disruptor-in-Chief?

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.

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