To Disrupt Education, First Shift the Balance of Power


In 2012, the blogosphere was filled with stories about Innovation in Education, how technology changes everything, and how the growing edtech market was embraced to the point where there was speculation towards the end of the year that perhaps there was an education investment “bubble”. There were meetups , and start-ups and code-ups. Technology-enhanced tools for learning such as the Khan Academy were lauded as revolutionary and reviled in the backlash as not only failing to revolutionize, but as being outright dangerous to education reform. The words “revolutionize”, “transform”, and “disrupt” were used so extensively some would have them banned in 2013.

In these first several weeks of 2013, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the intense optimism and cynicism engendered by the potential of technology to serve education. At bottom, I find the question to be whether this new technology serves institutions in their teaching, individuals in their learning, or corporations in their missions. Ideally, I would like to imagine that all of these would be served: that for-profit and nonprofit corporations would simultaneously be able to accomplish their mission-oriented goals and satisfy their stakeholders, be they donors or stockholders; that the educational system would be able to provide optimal, personalized learning experiences for every student; and that every learner would have access to the resources to create an optimal learning path with ideal learning goals for that particular student. The potential is certainly there, the technology is essentially neutral in its application, and the goals of all stakeholders involve challenges that technology can help to solve.


The numerous interdependent stakeholders in education technology with their legitimate interests are in tension with each other. Even mission-driven companies need to make money, and non-profit foundations need to show short-term results to donors. The education system needs to demonstrate high test scores and college enrollment among all populations, and learners need to get good grades and get into a good college in order to support a middle-class life. This leads to the prioritization of profit over mission, trivial experiments over deep research, test preparation over critical thinking, and grades over learning.

The education ecosystem is rigid and in a state of deep equilibrium – it is nearly impossible to shift, and even successful efforts are ephemeral, with the system trending back toward the status quo in short order. Although there are many “spot solutions”, examples of education excellence in isolated instances, the system as a whole resists the spread of such innovations.

Many forces are involved in pushing and pulling the system back towards its equilibrium, including:

  • High Stakes Testing: The linchpin of modern public education is the high-stakes test. The results of annual, summative tests performed on our nation’s students, although deeply flawed, drive the flow of money through the educational system. Schools are graded based on these test results, affecting both their funding and the property values of the families who own homes within the school’s boundaries. Vendors of textbooks, curriculum, test suites, educational software, educational interventions, educational technology, and other resources that could be used to deeply inform learning garner profits based on how well their products seem to correlate with high test scores. Counterproductive accountability schemes are even being concocted to use these results to help decide teacher pay.
  • Societal Expectations: Parents and grandparents expect school to look largely as it did twenty or fifty years ago, regardless of what modern research has taught us about how brains work and what that implies for learning. Parents are often uncomfortable when first-graders are taught higher-order writing skills before proper spelling, mathematical reasoning before computational fluency, or strategies other than phonetics for reading. And why not? Spelling, computation, and phonetics have simple right and wrong answers and are straightforward for parents to inculcate in their children through drill and rote procedures. Higher-order skills are challenging to assess and support. To many parents, industry vendors, and politicians, the language of authentic learning, in its many forms, sounds ludicrous.
  • The Power of Accreditation: It is axiomatic in our culture that good jobs go to those who are educated and it is true that, generally, employers look at high school and college diplomas and grades when making entry-level hiring decisions.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of stories about successful entrepreneurs such as Jobs, Gates, and Dell, who dropped out of college to do “real work,” an Edupunk movement that demonstrates the many alternatives for gaining skills and knowledge other than traditional schooling, and numerous stories questioning the incremental value of a college degree as compared to the debt that students accumulate in obtaining it.


    For most employers, accreditation is the most cost-effective way to do first-level screening of potential new employees – it is simply not worth the time and effort to screen all of the college drop-outs looking for that one diamond in the rough when there are so many college graduates to choose from. Consequently, for most people, there is little or no option other than to make the massive investment of time and money required to complete high school and/or college – simply to get into the pile of applicants that will even be considered for employment.

    For those who, for whatever reason, are unable to make such an investment, the most common outcome is poverty. For those who do not have the access and exposure to “go around” the system to create their own paths, for those who already have the burdens of poverty to overcome, for those who don’t have the privilege of being raised with an abundance of books and words and food and sleep and safety, accreditation is both incredibly difficult to reach and a virtual necessity for securing a middle-class life.

  • Poor Standardization: The education of our children is a societal good and an economic and civil necessity. The stakes are high, both personally for parents and children, and collectively for communities, cities, and states. If we as a citizenry take on that responsibility it is easy to see how we then also take on the responsibility to ensure that no child falls through the cracks and fails to get an education. We set minimum standards for education, make them compulsory for all, and enforce, if not learning, then attendance in schools. We create a standard curriculum to be taught by all teachers at a standard pace and tested with standard assessments.

    The price we pay for this standardization is the loss of degrees of freedom for everyone involved, from students, to teachers, to school boards, to state leaders. The resulting Procrustean educational experience may not be well suited for any particular child, but it does provide some level of uniformity to the education of all. It also increases resistance to change by taking the formal, legal power to make many educational choices away from individuals and investing it in institutions.

  • Standards of Evidence: Research plays a critical role in the development of pedagogy and curriculum for schooling. Research provides evidence to support or disprove our beliefs about learning. Most importantly, research allows us to look in our blind spots and find insights that are counter-intuitive, such as the research that tells us that rewards decrease performance and motivation for non-rote tasks. Research enables us to tease apart just what factors contribute to a great outcome and which are merely correlated with it to decide whether increased math scores are due to the new program or the new teacher. No wonder we wait for research results before using new pedagogies, methodologies, or curricula on our captive audience students.


    The art of teaching is holistic and entailed by the relationships among learners and teachers. The environment of teaching is non-constant and fraught with human cares. Conducting deep research that is rigorous and yet accounts for the many facets of teaching and learning is time consuming and expensive and in a world that is daily evolving more rapidly, waiting for the 7-year adoption cycles of resources developed as a result of 5-year research studies drives the system towards established practices and away from innovations.

With such immense inertia as an integral property of the educational system, why then is there so much optimism that “this time it will be different”? Unfortunately, I believe much of that optimism is unwarranted.

There is a sort of echo across the edtech landscape of the misguided or failed education reforms of the past. It has a Silicon Valley/VC flavor of young turks blithely using old broken metaphors as their model for “fixing” education – you can recognize them by their simplistic solutions that are based in increased automation and/or increased control. This particular optimism is fueled by the fallacious extension of the “factory” metaphor for education combined with dot-com-like enthusiasm for monetization and exit strategies. Much of the backlash and cynicism seems to circle around the superficial stories told within these outdated metaphors and is often similarly unwarranted. This cynicism is more a kneejerk reaction to the co-opting of genuine innovation than a direct reaction to the innovation itself.

Another form of optimism is perhaps more tentative, more fragile but also, I think, more justifiable. This optimism is grounded in the subtle but massive disruption to industries and institutions of the Web 2.0 shift of power and agency towards individuals. Technology, network effects, platforms, and other innovations have disrupted the travel industry, connected people to each other with active and latent networks at their fingertips, created new industries and careers, made them more knowledgeable partners in their own healthcare, made new kinds of one-person businesses possible through web hosting and services and global delivery services, and in countless ways shifted the balance of power towards the nodes, the humans.

If the education ecosystem is in a meta-stable state that resists change, and if the institutions of education have near absolute power in defining and awarding accreditation, and if the processes and outcomes of this system are sub-optimal for most students as compared to our aspirations, then disruption, as with the Web 2.0 shift elsewhere, is much more a matter of removing constraints and allowing organic evolution than it is of top-down reform:

Policymakers: Remove the constraints that enforce uniform experiences for diverse students. Allow students to achieve accreditation at different speeds through different paths in different ways and places.

Administrators: Give your educators the freedom to use their professional judgment and expertise to support students where they are, rather than disseminating information to them in lockstep. Remove the constraints that impede the profession of teaching as a professional community of practice and recognize those teachers who make a difference – you know who they are.

Innovators: If you must pursue the sterile efficiencies of automation, recognize that you are not transforming; your role is to help create pieces of the platform that allows real transformation to occur. To disrupt education, focus on the products and services that shift power from institutions into the hands of individual students, parents, and teachers: online assessments that tell a student what she has learned and what she could learn next, knowledge maps that show how specific skills and understanding add up to expertise in a subject or field, guided tours that take a learner through the experiences that develop mastery of various subjects, collaboration platforms that support peer learning and peer standards of excellence, data collection engines that give learners deep insight into their learning: more, invent the tools and resources that give power to learners and to the teachers that guide, encourage, and inspire them in ways that have not yet been framed or considered. Ask yourself – does this product deeply support students in becoming independent learners and active agents?

Citizens: First, question everything. Question the goals of education and accreditation without conflating the two. Question the fundamental mechanisms of learning in light of what we now know about our brains and what we now can accomplish with technological support. Question the reasoning behind coercive education, age-based cohorts, and high-stakes testing. Question the role of education in a world evolving on Internet time. Second, demonstrate the will to build the infrastructure of personal agency and independent learning, the infrastructure of innovation. Re-imagine education as a platform that each learner can use to achieve his or her unique goals, and create the means for all children, regardless of zip code, to have meaningful access.

Critics: Be vigilant. Every freedom unbound, every constraint removed, while creating the potential for genuine and human change also create the potential for abuse, both overt and subtle. Point out the unintended consequences of what will be a stuttering, messy, disruptive force interacting with a massive, stable system already rife with its own abuses and consequences (both intended and un-). Your legitimate cynicism is critical to balancing the soft optimism of a quiet revolution, an organic transformation, a grass-roots disruption – all words that perhaps have a place in 2013 after all.

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