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7 minutes reading time (1492 words)

Disruptive Innovations in Education

The terminology “disruptive innovation” is attributed to Clayton Christensen (2014). Here is his definition:

Disruptive innovation, describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.

In the business world there are many examples of disruptive innovations that first capture a small part of a market and then grow to disrupt and perhaps even destroy much larger companies. We have seen this repeatedly in Information and Communications Technology (ICT). For example, the mainframe manufacturers faced the onslaught of minicomputers, and the minicomputer manufacturers faced the onslaught of desktop microcomputers—and then laptop computers, and then tablet computers, and etc. And now, sales of smart phones (that are actually quite powerful hand held computers) have exceeded the billion machines a year level.

There are many other examples in the music industry, the video distribution industry, the retail book sales industry, the games industry, the still and motion camera industry, and so on.

Education is a Very Large Business

Think about our current K-12 education system. What has changed since you were a student, or since your parents were students? During my teaching of teachers career, I liked to ask my students this question.

Much of this career was spent in the College of Education at the University of Oregon. The UO’s College of Education is a major center of educational research and development. I was always surprised by the paucity of responses my student could provide, even those who had completed their undergraduate degrees in Education at the UO.

What is there about the “Business” of education that makes it so immune to disruptive innovations? Are there disruptive innovations now lurking is the shadows that will substantially change our K-12 education during the next decade or two?

Bob Metcalf

Shelly Bradbury’s 2013 interview of Bob Metcalf provides an excellent example. Quoting from

Robert "Bob" Metcalfe (born April 7, 1946) is an electrical engineer from the United States who co-invented Ethernet, founded 3Com and formulated Metcalfe's Law.… Starting in January 2011, he holds the position of Professor of Electrical Engineering and Director of Innovation at The University of Texas at Austin.

Quoting from the interview:

Question: What do you think will be the next killer application of gigabit network?

Answer: I have one in mind. My favorite one. You all know that the Internet disrupted the U.S. Postal Service with electronic mail. And we disrupted the music industry with iTunes and similar stuff. We’ve done serious disruption to retail with websites like, say, Amazon. We’ve created a series of major industry disruptions. Well, there are some ahead. My favorites are education, energy, and health care. They’re in serious needs of disruption.

Look at education. You know what a MOOC is? It’s a massive online open course. The Internet is going to disrupt higher education in a very positive way. These MOOCs are the beginning of the disruption, and it’s fantastic.

Not everyone wants it to happen. The MOOCs have an unsolved problem: You’re taking a class with 100,000 other people. How do you get the interaction with the professor? How do you get peer-to-peer interaction and discussion? How do you create a scalable education community under this MOOC model? This is going to be one of the killer apps of this gigabit network. High bandwidth, multiple location communication will somehow re-create the learning community. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Metcalf then goes on to talk about books as a disruptive innovation in education. The mass production and mass distribution of books certainly changed the education industry. The MOOC is an inexpensive replacement for some aspects of our current human-teacher-intensive educational system. It will surely spread into our precollege educational system.

Note from Moursund  added 12/11/2014: I recently read the following article;

Roscorla, T. (12/5/2014). 7 online learning myths that university administrators believe. Center for Digital Educaotin. Retrieved 12/11/2014 from

Quoting from the article:

Online learning has been hailed as a faster, cheaper way to provide education -- but it doesn't do half of what administrators think it will.  
With the help of a few experts, we've compiled a list of major myths that administrators believe, how they match up against reality and why administrators believe them.

Here are three of the myths that are analyzed:

  • Online learning is cheaper than face-to-face learning and an easy money maker.
  • Faculty members cannot interact as well with students online as they can in person.
  • Students don't need support online because they know more about technology than faculty.

Teaching Machines

A book is a teaching machine. Here is a quotation about motion picture machines from Thomas Edison:

“Books will soon be obsolete in the schools.... Scholars will soon be able to instruct through the eye. It is possible to touch every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture.” (Thomas A. Edison; American inventor and businessman; quotation from 1913; 1847–1931.)

This quote from more than a hundred years ago illustrates how easy it is to be mistaken when forecasting changes in our educational system. I have recently written an Information Age Education Newsletter about current and future teaching machines (Moursund, September, 2014). In this newsletter I presented a much larger/grander view of what Metcalf discussed in his interview and what Edison predicted. Here are two sections from my newsletter:

Of course, my teaching machine will be small and portable. It will have a high-resolution color display touch screen, long battery life, fast connectivity to the Internet, voice input, voice output, and automatic translation among languages from both text and voice. Using its built-in intelligence, compute power, and connectivity, it will be able to solve or help greatly in solving a huge range of problems of the types that people encounter in school, in their everyday lives, and on the job. This teaching machine will be aware of its user’s location, will act as a GPS, and will access and process the visual and sound information that its user is receiving from both the physical and electronic environments. It will always be available, and it will facilitate “just in time” learning.

We know a considerable amount about individual differences among learners, the value of individualization of instruction, the value of human tutors, and the value of computer tutors.  My teaching machine will respectfully accommodate our understanding that there are many aspects of teaching and learning in which human teachers and student-human interactions are both absolutely necessary, and are much more effective, than our current computer teaching machines.

However, it will also reflect that there are already many things that a teaching machine can do better than human teachers, and there are many things that a human teacher plus a computer teaching machine working together can do better than either working alone. A student’s computer teaching machine will gradually learn which of these three approaches works best in a particular learning area for a student it is serving.

Final Remarks

Future teaching machines will be good enough and inexpensive enough so that they will become commonplace household items. Children will routinely have had several years of experience in using such machines by the time they reach traditional kindergarten or first grade. This will gradually become a worldwide occurrence. I find it interesting to think about how our traditional educational system will stand up to this onslaught.

What You Can Do

Schools and human teachers are not about to disappear. But, there will be major changes in the roles that teachers play in our educational system. If you are a teacher and/or a parent, think carefully about how education will be changed by every student having 24/7 access to individualized and somewhat personalized instruction through teaching machines. What are you and the school(s) you are involved with doing about this massive disruptive innovation that is now becoming available?


Bradbury, S (8/11/2013). In Chattanooga, Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalf talks about what's next for the Internet. Retrieved 8/13/2013 from

Christensen, C. (2014). Disruptive innovations. Retrieved 9/16/2014 from This site includes a video interview in which Christensen explains his ideas about disruptive innovations.

Moursund, D. (September, 2014). Education for students' futures Part 14: The future of teaching machines. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 9/16/2014 from

Readings from IAE Publications

Moursund, D. (2014). Empowering learners and teachers. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/16/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014). Federal approaches to improving education. IAE-Pedia. Retrieved 9/16/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014). Substantially improving education. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/16/2014 from

Moursund, D. (3/13/2011).Twenty-five years of little progress in improving education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/16/2014 from

Moursund, D. (September, 2009). Key ideas from the 2008 book: Christensen, Horn, and Johnson. Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 9/16/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2007). High tech, high touch. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/16/2014 from—High_Touch.

Moursund, D. (November, 1985). High tech/high touch. The Computing Teacher. Retrieved 9/16/2014 from—High_Touch.

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