by Gary Kaplan
Clayton Christensen’s contribution to education
The term Blended Learning has its origin in work done by Clayton Christensen and his colleagues at the Harvard Business School in the 1990s and early 2000s. They coined the term Disruptive Innovation, a coinage that has seeped into the nooks and crannies of discourse in many fields. One of those fields is education.
Many years ago I had the savory pleasure of visiting Dr. Christensen in his office. His book Disrupting Class (2008) had attracted a great deal of attention in education circles and I was honored to have the opportunity to discuss the role of technology in education with the country’s, if not the world’s, leading exponent of innovation in general and disruptive innovation in particular.
A polished wood pedestal on the bookshelf behind him displayed a 2.5 inch disk drive, the subject of his first study of disruptive innovation discussed in The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), the book that made him famous. He rose to his towering 6 foot 8 inch height and lifted the diminutive device from its mount. “This little gadget is where it all started,” he said in an amused voice. “The mouse that roared.”
JFY had been using what we then called instructional technology for about a decade. The technology at that time consisted of large disks that were inserted into large servers. We traveled from school to school loading our curriculum into servers and then going from classroom to classroom to connect each individual computer to the new program. It was, as you might imagine, time consuming. When a problem occurred at a school, we had to go there to fix it. We burned a lot of gasoline in those years. Our travel was largely responsible for the rise in the price of crude oil.
He was interested in our program model because he thought we had solved one of the major obstacles to the adoption of technology in schools: lack of expertise. Even if schools were interested in using educational technology, they seldom had the in-house technology capacity to maintain the physical infrastructure. Nor did they have the expertise to select the best software and integrate it into their curriculum structure. Translating these points into the jargon of Disruptive Innovation, we directly fulfilled two of the four requirements: convenience and accessibility. We also contributed to the other two requirements: simplicity and affordability. By installing and maintaining the software we made the process simple for the school. And we had public funding that defrayed a large part of the cost. He was intrigued.
I was deeply impressed by his vision of the purpose of Disruptive Innovation in schools. He was not advocating a technological takeover. The dystopian nightmare of robotic children chained to monitors learning by rote was not his dream. Even his definition of technology was not what I would have expected. Technology, he explained patiently, was all the processes by which an organization transforms inputs of labor, capital, materials and information into products and services. A teacher lecturing in front of a class is a technology. Students taking notes are a technology. Computers are a technology.
What he saw as the primary problem of education was the conflict between the diversity of learning styles of students and the operational need of large organizations to standardize their processes: customization vs. standardization. He saw computerized instruction as the technology that could reconcile those opposing needs. He characterized it as a “student-centric technology” that could “mediate the clash caused by the need to standardize the way schools teach and test versus the need to customize how students learn” by “tailor[ing] itself to a student’s specific type of intelligence or learning style” (p.11).
Encountering this humanistic vision in a business school should not have been surprising. The first page of Disrupting Class announces his aspirations:
- Maximize human potential.
- Facilitate a vibrant, participative democracy [with] an informed electorate… (a pure Jeffersonian ideal).
- Hone the skills, capabilities and attitudes that will help our economy remain prosperous and economically competitive.
- Nurture the understanding that people can see things differently—and that those differences merit respect rather than persecution.
It is worth a long, reflective pause to absorb how relevant these ideas of 2008 are to 2021.
Clayton Christensen died in 2020 at the young age of 67. His contributions to economic and educational theory and practice, widely influential in his lifetime, will grow more inspiring as their relevance to the larger social and political context unfolds. “I’m a teacher,” he said, “but I’m not an expert in education” (p.vi). His humility made his wisdom more profound.
Gary Kaplan is the executive director of JFYNetWorks.
Other posts authored by Gary can be found here.
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