Education and the Innovator’s Dilemma

The history of innovation is rarely linear. Most technologies tell a story of tangled interests, accidental discoveries, and circuitous implementation.

Do you know the story about Sony’s disruption of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA)? In 1947, Bell Labs invented the transistor, a potential replacement for vacuum tubes, which enabled the operation of smaller, less power-hungry devices. This transistor, however, could not handle the power of larger popular electronic devices, such as tabletop radios, box televisions and early digital computers. RCA quickly labelled this as a technical limitation of a fledgling technology, one which money could overcome, spending over $1 billion in research and development to find applications for the transistor in the market that currently existed.

Sony saw an opportunity for something different. In 1955, the company took the technology in a lateral direction, releasing the first battery-powered, pocket transistor radio. The tiny radio produced a horribly static sound and batteries were quick to die. What was important, however, was the discovery of a brand new market. Sony’s new device caught on quickly with teenagers who couldn’t afford table-top radios and didn’t mind the crackling sound of their pocket radio as long as they could take it with them to the beach. Eventually, recognizing the value in portability, Sony made a logical expansion on the technology by releasing the first portable transistor television. They captured a market whose need and budget was left unaddressed by the legacy device – from this foothold, Sony began dominating the portable electronics market, wiping away vacuum-tube companies along with RCA.
Disruptive innovations, according to Clayton Christensen, author of “Innovator’s Dilemma,” often hit the market appearing inferior to the legacy product, keeping incumbents initially ignorant. The rookie technology is brushed off as too cheap, inefficient, or unprofitable, compared to the proven, high-end, legacy issue. With little direct competition to force risky decisions, these disruptive innovators make calculated improvements on their product based on market demands, until at some point it intersects with the quality of the incumbent’s product. And the innovator has innovated with a purpose.

It’s not productive to call education a stodgy old man. Pedagogy may appear static at times, but a systemic shift in the way students are taught is imminent. You may have heard of the Flipped Classroom model in the media; you may know a middle-schooler who does her homework on a tablet; you might have taken your own stab at a Codecademy or Udemy course — the fact is, education disruption is already taking place.

Most alternative teaching is still considered eccentric and uncommon today, while legacy methods — live lectures with little discussion; problem-sets assigned for home — are tried, true, predictable. But we’re finally seeing nontraditional teaching methods such as Blended Learning, or the Flipped Classroom, address the needs of schools whose conventional systems are falling short. A round of applause goes out to Clintondale High, the nation’s first high school to integrate Blended Learning in its entirety , a champion of change. What we’re witnessing here is a first mover in a disruptive model. And not unlike Sony’s first portable transistor radio, the first iteration is far from perfect; but, for educators at Clintondale, the challenge of introducing a new system is well worth the 17 point bump in their college acceptance rate.

Christensen applies his study of innovation to the commercial space, asking when and how an industry might experience a true paradigm shift. This might come in the form of a ubiquitous piece of technology, a systemic overhaul, or both. What might he see in education? It’s an industry that has been progressing slowly for a long time, with a new set of technologies reaching more people in one year than in the last 50 years. Christensen even predicts that 50% of all high school classes will be taught online by 2019.

Did any of you readers attend high school online? I asked a room with over 200 adults this question just last week. Not a single person raised their hand. 50% is a very, very big number. That’s 7 million people taking high school classes online. That’s equivalent to the entire population of New York.
Now, granted, Clayton’s claim is only a prediction, based on observable patterns. But if you look around at today’s device-hungry youth, the Internet- and tech-native generation, he might just be onto something.

So what does this mean for you?

“Accept Innovation With Open Arms”


Explore your opportunities. Challenge your administrators to let you try new things. Teaching is all about learning, both for you and the student. Don’t feel constrained by your textbooks or curriculum, but rather try to adopt new methods that complement them. You know your goals — the path you take to get to your goal is entirely up to you. After all, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: teaching is an art.
Administrators. It’s happening now. The only thing certain is, if you’re not innovating, you’re losing popularity – and fast. You don’t necessarily need to pioneer change, but don’t be the force that holds your teachers back. You’ve hired great people and allowed them to set goals. Now let them go out and be great — if they come to you with new tools and ideas, and a burning look in their eye…maybe they’re onto something. Don’t grab hold of every innovation in sight, but listen and work with your teachers to move forward. Before you know it, you’ll be in the news like Clintondale high school. Small sacrifice for a massive potential reward.
According to Christensen, your best bet isn’t layering technology on top of your current education practices, but instead spinning off a few classes where technology is the primary driver of education. This is where true innovation can occur, and you can test the success on a small sample audience.

Here are some stats after just one year of flipping the classroom in the 9th grade at Clintondale.

Reduction in Failure
English: 33%
Math: 31%
Science: 22%
Social Studies: 19%

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You stodgy old man you. Don’t you worry. You’re trying your best, and we appreciate that. Set the goals, hand out money like a rich uncle and look the other way until the dust settles. — Too much money stifles innovation. Yes, you read that correctly. The seemingly inferior technologies will prevail as dominant when the time comes. BUT you can make sure you’re focusing your investments on legitimizing the use of technologies and online education for students. If it’s definitely going to happen, then it should happen sooner rather than later. The lean methodology suggests that the faster we can get solutions out there, the faster we can iterate an awesome and comprehensive solution. Don’t try to plan too much, because the first solutions won’t be the ones that last. History has proven that investment in infrastructure is key, education is a keystone infrastructure piece.

Students (Everyone).

Today, more people are graduating from college than at any point in our country’s history (there’s also a lot more people). We’re seeing a true popularization of education – no longer is the upper class privy to information and higher education. More so than at any point in recent history, everyone and anyone can be a student. It’s our responsibility as the world’s students to remain curious, to continue searching for the best methods for learning and teaching our children.
The change is happening now, and I hope you wake-up everyday as excited as I am.

This article was originally released on Insights Wired.

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