Information Age Education
   Issue Number 26
September, 2009   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

"Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions." (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; American jurist who served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932; 1841–1935.)

Recently I have been reading a book that contains mind-stretching ideas:

Christensen, Horn, and Johnson (2008). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. McGraw Hill.

Clayton Christensen is a business professor at Harvard University. Quoting from

Clayton M. Christensen is the architect of and the world’s foremost authority on disruptive innovation, a framework which describes the 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.

His seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), which first outlined his disruptive innovation frameworks, received the Global Business Book Award for the Best Business Book of the Year in 1997, …

Disrupting Class, which looks at the root causes of why schools struggle and offers solutions, was named one of the “10 Best Innovation and Design Books in 2008” by BusinessWeek and the best Human Capital book of the year in the Strategy + Business Best Books of 2008.

Very Brief Summary

The “Disrupting class” book examines the innovation of distance education and computer-assisted learning when they are combined and then delivered over the Web. This is a disruptive innovation that has already gained a significant foothold in our precollege and higher education systems. The book presents a well-reasoned theory of how a disruptive innovation gains a foothold and then eventually expands rapidly and disrupts long-existing establishments. Arguing from Christensen’s theories and current data, the books projects that:

“[by 2018] computer-based, student-centric learning will account for 50 percent of the “seat miles” in U.S. secondary schools. Given the current trajectory of substitution, about 80 percent of courses taken in 2024 will have been taught online in a student-centric way.”

The Key Idea

The key idea in Christensen’s theory is that an innovation finds a niche market in which it has very little or no competition. For example, consider the Advanced Placement (AP) courses. According to the Website, there are 37 courses in 22 subject areas.

Very few high schools have the staff and students to make it feasible to offer all of these courses. Small school (often these are rural school) may lack the staff and students to offer any of these courses.

Aha! A niche, non-competitive market. Develop distance education versions of these courses and offer them to students throughout the country. The high schools do not feel threatened by this innovation—indeed, they welcome and embrace it. Distance education gains a foothold in the schools with the help of the schools administration and teachers. See

There are a number of non-competitive niche markets in education. For example, Scientific Learning Corporation (see began by developing a computer-based innovative product that helps severe speech-delayed students to make rapid gains in their speech proficiency. This problem affects perhaps one to two percent of children, and the traditional intervention consisted of years of working with a well-qualified speech therapist.

The innovative approach was rooted in progress in brain theory and how the brain processes the phonemes of speech. The innovation helps to solve the severe-speech-delay problem in a high percentage of cases and is much faster than the traditional approach. So, Scientific Learning Corporation carved out a distance education niche in many school districts with the willing help of school administrators and teachers.

Eventually the company modified its product so that it served large numbers of students who were having trouble learning to read. That market is not small and is competitive, but schools embraced the innovation because it was less expensive and more successful than traditional approaches. Now Scientific Learning Corporation is providing “mainstream” products to help the full range of students learn to read and to improve their reading skills.

Other examples include providing education to prison inmates, providing education to hospital or home-bound students, providing courses to students who need credit recovery for courses they have failed, home schooling, and so on.

The Best of the Best

Highly Interactive Intelligent Computer-Assisted Learning (HIICAL) provides a good example of some of the best of the best of current disruptive technology educational innovation. You can learn more about HIICAL at

The basic idea is that HIICAL computer-based courses can be developed that are more individualized than a teacher can provide when faced by a classroom of 25 to 40 students. Most HIICAL is not yet as good as a skilled individual tutor. However, it is more successful than the large class, mass production (factory model) approach to education that is so widely currently used.

The key to continued growth of this HIICAL innovation is this individualization. Educational researchers have long known the benefits of individual tutoring. However, broad scale approach to education using well-qualified human tutors is prohibitively expensive. HIICAL has an economy of scale and a level of individualization that has started to change and eventually will significantly change our education system.

A Major Omission in the Book

I find it interesting that Christensen, Horn, and Johnson have not identified the fundamental idea that computers can solve or significantly help in solving many of the problems that we currently teach students to solve using "by hand" or low technology (such as pencil and paper) techniques.

Marshall McLuhan understood this basic concept when he said, “The medium is the message.” If we can immerse students in a computer-delivered HIICAL education, the same system can be providing students easy access to the increasingly powerful computer-based aids to solving problems and accomplishing tasks.

Sure, a little progress has occurred. It is now common for high school students taking math and science courses to learn to use a graphing, problem-solving calculator. Even here, however, such calculators are not yet routinely allowed on the state and national standardized tests. In some sense, the idea that “Two Brains are Better than One” (see seems to be falling on deaf ears. Adults at work and play routinely make use of a wide range of Information and Communication Technology facilities. Why aren’t students being educated to solve problems and accomplish tasks in that environment?

This is a huge niche market that is slowly becoming mainstream. We see this progress, for example, in the fields of graphic arts, engineering design, and architecture. We can witness how the ICT disruptive innovations are gradually wiping out the traditional home-delivered newspaper. Certainly business and industry are not blind to such disruptive technology. However, it often seems to me that large parts of our precollege and higher education systems are blind to the changes that are coming.

Final Remarks

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book titled, The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference, has received wide attention. Christensen, Horn, and Johnson argue that we are close to a tipping point in Distance Education. I believe that this will eventually be true in computer-aided problem solving and task accomplishing, but that we are still moving quite slowly in this area.

The roles of teachers will change substantially as computer systems continue to get better at teaching about and at solving the types of problems and accomplishing the types of tasks that are explored in our schools. There will still be substantial need for teachers who can provide individualized help to students and who can help to meet human needs of students. There will still be need for human teachers who are good at facilitating and participating in the types of social, cognitive, and interdisciplinary wide-ranging interactions that are essential components of a good education.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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