Comments on Disrupting Class from Clayton Christensen

56206100_82c8a353f4_zOne of the recommended works from H807  still waiting to be read, was Clayton’s Christensen’s take on technology in education.  Piloted to management stardom after writing the Innovator’s Dilemma, he applied his theory of disruptive innovations to the public education system.

The innovation is online learning.  Research suggests that online learning could provide a more individualized, tailor-made education to learners.  So, why has online learning failed to make a substantial impact on public education?

The current education system is a legacy of the industrial era, with an organisation inspired by Fordist production methods.  Standardized curriculum, textbooks and assessment, categorisation of education  in classes and grades by age were the preferred organisation form to achieve universal literacy and prepare an obedient workforce.  However, this monolithic, homogenized, teacher-led system lead to substantial drop-outs and repetition rates and forces a pace too slow or too fast for non-average learners.

The theory of disruptive innovations offers insights on the success and failure of online learning:

  1. Conservative forces within the current forces tend to cram technology in the current model (‘Computers in the classroom’).  This is due to a lack of imagination, but mostly a protective reflex.  Similarly, companies find it nearly impossible to adopt disruptive innovations, as 1/ they need to satisfy existing customers and 2/ measures of performance and quality are completely different in the disruptive model.  An important point is that a disruption requires a new commercial system to break through, implying that the current education model based on schools is incompatible with the disruption.“To win the support of all the powerful entities within the organisation whose endorsement is critical to getting the innovation funded, the innovative idea morphs into a concept that fits the business model of the organisation, rather than the market for which the innovator originally envisioned it. (…) Schools are not unique in how they have implemented computer-based learning.” (p.53)
  2. Innovations need markets of non-consumers to be able to gradually develop and improve.  Non-consumers are those that are not served by the current system. Examples include the success of online learning with adult learning, professional learning, and specialized courses, compared with its lower success in regular secondary education.  The Sony Walkman was a success because it targeted teenagers without funds to buy full-blown radios rather than existing radio users.
  3. Innovations tend to follow a S-curve, starting slowly before reaching a tipping-point.  We tend to forget sometimes the millions of students who currently study online at the OU, China’s Open University, Universitas Terbuka Indonesia etc.  Increasing financial strain on public education institutions, better online courses and gradually disappearing prejudices will create such a tipping point for student-centric online learning soon, according to Christensen.

Sustaining and Disruptive Innovations

Christensen outlines a more student-centric and modular education system that is decoupled from the standardised package students receive now.  In this system, most courses are online, teachers are coaches providing 1:1 support and materials are shared and retrieved through user networks rather than by off-the-shelf textbooks.  Approaches take more account of students’ interests, learning methods and pace.  Assessment is continuous and provides immediate, actionable feedback.

To realize full benefit of technology, education systems should install ‘heavyweight teams’ composed of key players from various departments, very much like Toyota used autonomous teams to design new processes for the Prius, followed by aggressive codification of these processes.

Much of the value in the book comes from taking an outsider’s perspective on learning.  The book resonates with Tooley’s book in that it considers schools as temporary, outdated organisation forms for education, unsuited for current society.  It offers interesting discussions on why computers in schools are usually a bad idea and explains why technology tends to be used  first to replicate existing processes rather than design wholly new ones.

I found the book interesting as it discusses innovation not only from a technological perspective (early adopters…), but from an economical point of view.  The book should be part of the H807 course rather than in the recommended reading list.


Christensen, C., Johnson, C. W. and Horn, M. (2010) Disrupting Class, Expanded Edition: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill.

#H807 The Final Verdict

In a few weeks, I resume my MAODE studies at the OU with the module H810, Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students. I submitted by H807 EMA hours before boarding the plane to Belgium, and I didn’t got to blogging during my holiday.  As the dust settles – but without the EMA scores in yet – I want to write a few final reflections on H807.  

I would summarize my overall feelings on the course by saying that it was better than I expected, but less than the previous course, H800. Lower expectations were due to the facts that the course was actually quite old, being its seventh and last presentation and that there would be some overlap with the themes discussed in H800 (assessment, feedback, Web 2.0).  Actually, both of these concerns turned out to be very relevant concerns.

Yes, there are few papers more recent than 2008 in the course materials, but the TMAs and EMA require you to complement the core readings with papers and other resources you find yourself, allowing plenty of scope to include more recent materials. Often, seminal papers on the topic are not very recent either, for example the papers from Nicol (2006, 2007) and Black & Wiliam (2001) on assessment.  The same goes for the alleged overlap between H807 and H800.  You have some freedom in choosing the topics you want to elaborate on in your writings, leaving it up to you to what degree you want to cover the same ground.  Tutors/ Assessment software also check your previously submitted papers.

Where are the differences then with the – excellently evaluated – H800 course?  First and foremost, the course design does not reach the same quality.  A well-designed course text should read as if the course instructor is sitting next to you, it should motivate you to delve into the readings, providing a good introduction and posing thoughtful questions.  It should also provide coherence to the course, adding rationale why a certain theme is encountered at that particular point in the course and linking course themes with each other.  The design  should also introduce various media.  Not only academic papers, but also podcasts, video lectures, blog posts and newspaper articles.  All this was present, but in a lesser degree in H807.

Second, there are no tutor-led Blackboard Collaborate (Elluminate) tutorials in H807.  I found the tutor-led tutorials in H800 valuable to get a better understanding of course concepts (e.g. Sfard’s metaphors of learning), but they also helped creating a supportive and enjoyable atmosphere among learners.  After a few tutor-led sessions, learners felt ok to set up their own sessions.  In H807 learners were encouraged to have synchronous sessions, but it didn’t take off.  Starting with one or more tutor-led sessions could have helped, although the composition of the particular tutor group likely played a part as well.

Regarding the assessment, both courses consisted of some challenging and some less interesting assignments.  However, for H807, course activities went on until 2 weeks before the deadline, whereas for H800 there were quite a few weeks available, allowing more  time for exploration and reflection than for H807.

Some of the differences are in small details.  The weekly welcoming message, for example, nicely updated for H800, whereas for H807, the message from week 1 stayed unchanged until the end of the course. Also, the fact that courses can be done at any order, implies that some items (introducing B.Collaborate, introduce library etc.) are repeated in every course.  

Anyway, some items were excellent, such as the parts on non-verbal communication, e-tivities and elements of successful feedback.  I’m now looking forward to starting H810, a course that has  collected excellent reviews, at least from those learners I know – OU end-of-course evaluations are unfortunately not made public.


Nicol, D. (2006) ‘Assessment for learner self-regulation: enhancing the first year experience using learning technologies’, In paper presented at the 10th International Computer Assisted Assessment Conference, 4-5 July 2006, pp. 329–340, [online] Available from:

Nicol, D. (2007) ‘Principles of good assessment and feedback: theory and practice’, In from the REAP International Online Conference on Assessment Design for Learner Responsibility, 29-31 May 2007, [online] Available from:

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (2001) Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment, British Educational Research Association, [online] Available from:

#H807 E-learning Models and their Implications for Activity Design

Copyright: Oliver Merkel

With the submission of TMA03 the focus in H807 shifts to the design of e-tivities (Salmon, 2000).  The ultimate block starts with a study of the theoretical foundations that underpin activity design explicitly or, more often, implicitly, as pedagogic assumptions.  The key text is a review of e-learning theories by Mayes and de Freitas (2004), complemented by e-books from Terry Anderson (2008) and Peter Goodyear (2001).

E-learning theories are not new theories, but rather e-enhancements of existing learning theories (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).  They form “sets of beliefs: about the nature of knowledge and competence, about the purposes of learning, about how learning occurs, about how people should and should not be treated, etc” (Goodyear, 2001, p.51)

Consecutive learning theories don’t replace, but rather complement each other, each contributing its legacy to learning.  Theories are situated at various levels of aggregation, with associative/behaviourist approaches addressing observable factors, cognitive approaches focusing on the ‘detailed structures and processes that underlie individual performance’ and situative approaches taking into account the social and cultural aspects of learning (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).

Activity designs are usually a blend of different learning theories.  Being aware of the main learning theories helps building a consistent design and clarifying what type of learning and interaction is intended. An example provided by Goodyear (2001):

It is not uncommon to find some members of a team believing that learners are poor at organizing themselves and learn best by being fed information in small amounts, while other members of the team want to promote active, student-managed learning.

The table below summarizes key concepts of different learning theories and their implications for online learning, taken from the publications from Anderson, Mayes and de Freitas and Goodyear.

Associative/ Behaviourist approaches Design principles
Looking for observable behaviour Explicitly mentioning course outcomes
Behavioural objectives Ability to test achievement of learning outcomes
Instructional Systems Design (ISD) Decomposing learning into small chunks
Routines of organised activity
Learning hierarchies (controversial!) Sequencing learning materials with increasing complexity
Giving direct feedback on learning
Individualized learning trajectories
Cognitive psychology (constructivism)
Types of memory (sensory – short term – long term) Maximize sensations: strategic screen layout
Research on memory, perception, reasoning, concept formation. Maximize sensations: well-paced information
Learning is active Maximize sensations: highlighting main elements
Learning is individual (knowledge construction) Relate difficulty level to cognitive level of learner: providing links to easier and more advanced resources
Use of comparative advance organizers
Use of conceptual models
Importance of prior knowledge structures Pre-instructional & prerequisite questions
Experimentation toward discovery of broad principles
Promote deep processing Use of information maps zooming in/ out
Cognitive Apprenticeship (Brown et al, 1989) Interactive environments for construction of understanding
Metacognition (reflection, self-regulation) Relate to real-life (apply, analyse, synthesize)
Learning styles (controversial!) Address various learning styles
Cognitive styles Let students prepare a journal
Dual coding theory Use both visual information and text
Motivate learners (ARCS model) Use techniques to catch attention, explain relevance,  build confidence and increase satisfaction
Situated learning (constructivism)
Personal knowledge construction Personal meaning to learning
Situated learning: motivation Relate to real life (relevance)
Holistic/ Systemic approaches Conduct research on internet
Build confidence with learners
Identity development Use of first-hand information (not filtered by instructor)
Communities of Practice (Lave & Wenger) Collaborative activities
Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) Fostering the growth of learning communities
Learning as act of participation Legitimate (peripheral) practice, apprenticeships
Lifelong learning Authentic learning and assessment tasks
Information explosion Digital literacies
Learning in network environment Keep up-to-date in field
Knowledge base Multi-channel learning
Distributed learning Build diversity, openness in learning (different opinions), autonomy
Personal Learning Environment  self-directed learning, just-in-time

Some comments on the table:

1. It’s difficult to draw sharp lines between these theories.  Some authors distinguish between cognitive constructivism (based on the work from Piaget) and social-cultural constructivism (based on the work from Vygotsky).  The work of Vygotsky formed the basis for the anthropological work from Jean Lave and the concept of ‘communities of practice’. The work of Engeström on activity theory forms a bridge between situative learning (with the activity system, it takes a more social unit of analysis than the individual) and constructivist approaches.

2 .Constructivism doesn’t really fit into the overview.  Goodyear (2001, p.75) mentions the following description of constructivism:

“…learning is a constructive process in which the learner is building an internal representation of knowledge, a personal interpretation of experience. This representation is constantly open to change, its structure and linkages forming the foundation to which other knowledge structures are appended….this view of knowledge does not necessarily deny the existence of the real world..but contends that all we know of the world are human interpretations of our experience of the world….learning must be situated in a rich context, reflective of real world contexts…” In other words, constructivism states that knowledge is relative and is different for every user.  Learning, in this position, means actively building a personal and contextualised interpretation of experience.



#H807 On Affordances

This week in H807 features an elaboration on the popular term ‘affordances’ in educational technology.   This relates to the broader discussion on if and how technologies affect our behaviour.  Is our behaviour (as a learner) influenced by the use of e-mail, blogging, e-readers etc.?  For example, ‘writing with pen and paper required the user to think linearly, writing only when the text was near completion, in contrast the use of a word processor allows you to think non-linearly and to adapt and develop ideas as they emerge.’ (McGrenere and Ho, 2000, p6)
The term was originally coined by Gibson (1979), but has since undergone an evolution in its meaning.
Gibson (1979)
Origin in the study of perception by WWII pilots.
Interaction between environment and organisms.  Environment becomes meaningful in its interaction with organisms.
Objective/ Positivistic meaning
Fundamental properties:
  1. An affordance exists relative to the action capabilities of a particular actor.
  2. The existence of an affordance is independent of the actor’s ability to perceive it.
  3. An affordance does not change as the needs and goals of the actor change.
Norman (1988)
Adoption of affordances for design.
Design of an object may support its intended use. 
Suggestions or clues as to how to use the properties
Perceived and actual properties of an object.
Can be dependent on the experience, knowledge, or culture of the actor (User-centric meaning of affordance)
Can make an action difficult or easy

McGrenere and Ho (2000)
Utility vs Usability
Degrees of affordance
        Ease with which an affordance can be undertaken
        Clarity of the information that describes the existing affordance.
Kreijns et al (2002)
Social affordances
Properties of technologies that create and sustain social interactions (‘social space’).
To invite learners to act in accordance with the perceived affordance, i.e., start a task or a non-task related interaction of communication’

Conole & Dyke (2004)
Taxonomy of affordances
Standard set of taxonomies can help practitioners to make better use of ICT in education.

Boyle and Cook (2004)
Affordances incompatible with social constructivism

Oliver (2005)
Term ‘affordance’ is confusing and used inappropriately. 
‘Claims’ would be better.

Wright and Parchoma (2011)
Suggest discourse-based approach, like the 4 discourses on technology in learning identified by Bigum.

In Gibson’s view affordances are latent in the environment, objectively measurable and independent of the individual’s ability to recognise them, but are always in relation to the actor (Wright and Parchoma, 2011, p.249).   Its meaning was confused by the appropriation by Norman, who distinguished between ‘real affordances’ (conform to Gibson’s notion) and ‘perceived affordances’. This shift incorporates subjective interpretation and mental activity, which were explicitly rejected by Gibson. 

Conole and Dyke (2004) introduced a taxonomy of affordances for educational technology, aimed at helping practitioners to design activities.  The affordances include:
  • Diversity
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Reflection
  • Multimodal and Non-Linear
  • Risk –Fragility – Uncertainty
  • Immediacy
  • Monopolization (convergence)
  • Surveillance
The paper from Conole and Dyke (2004) generated an interesting discussion with a response from Boyle and Cook (2004) and a counter-response from Conole and Dyke (2004).  They argue that it’s wrong to apply the notion of affordances within a social constructivist context.  ‘Gibson’s approach is (a) not constructivist, and (b) not social’ (Boyle and Cook, 2004).  They claim that other theories of perception are more reconcilable with social constructivism. 

McGrenere and Ho (2000, p.7) suggest a two-dimensional interpretation of the affordance concept, ‘where one dimension describes the ease with which an affordance can be undertaken and the second dimension describes the clarity of the information that describes the existing affordance. Each of these dimensions is a continuum.’

The main critique centres on the confusing nature of the concept, because of its appropriation by different theoretical streams.  Oliver (2005) concludes that the term is highly problematic in both its origin and application.  McGrenere and Ho (2000, p.8) state that ‘as the concept of a affordances is used currently, it has marginal value because it lacks specific meaning’.
‘The term becomes shorthand, causally ‘afforded’ by the technologies and presented as obvious and inherent.  Rendering something as complex as the idea of anytime anyplace learning in this way closes it to investigation; it simply becomes a black box with an input of access, which occurs anytime or anywhere, and an output of learning. What is going on inside the black box has been obscured from view and closed from enquiry.’ (Oliver, 2005, p.252)  ‘Once prevalence and ubiquity are expanded to include and acknowledge heterogeneity, the supposed ’affordances’ start to break down and its black box begins to crack revealing a much more complex system than a mapping of affordance as input to pedagogy as output.’ (Oliver, 2005, p 254)

Oliver (2005) denounces the taxonomy of affordances, suggested by Conole and Dyke (2004).  ‘This list [taxonomy of affordances] groups together qualities attributable to the technology (e.g. multimodality and non-linearity), to its user (e.g. reflection) and to their mutual relationship (e.g. immediacy). Arguably, such a list does not conform neatly to Gibson’s, Norman’s or McGrenere & Ho’s formulation of affordance. Some elements seem consistent with the positivist origins of affordance. Others seem entirely unrelated – reflection, for example, would be denounced by Gibson. Moreover, the idea that reflection might be a response to an offering by technology (implying some causal link) rather than an act of personal agency seems odd. ‘(Oliver, 2005, p.409)

However, Oliver (2005) acknowledges that a list might be useful, but objects to the use of the term ‘affordances’.  ‘The notion of ‘affordance’ seems ill-suited to legitimating this conglomeration of claims about perceptions, actions and characteristics. Something much broader is required. Substituting the word ‘claims’ for ‘affordances’, for example, provides a more plausible framework with no loss of the central message and no diminution of utility to practitioners.’ (Oliver, 2005, p.409)
A brief ‘tour’ of the literature provides some insight in the origins and various interpretations of the term ‘affordances’.  It seems wise to either refer specifically to the intended meaning when using it (for example, by referring to Gibson or Norman), or drop the term altogether, using more neutral terms as ‘claims’ or ‘potential’ instead.

Key references
  • Gibson, J. J. (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception (Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum).
  • McGrenere, J. & Ho, W. (2000) Affordances: clarifying and evolving a concept, Proceedings of Graphics Interface, May, Montreal. Available online at:
  • Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P. A. & Jochems, W. (2002) The sociability of computer-supported collaborative learning environments, Educational Technology & Society, 5(1). Available online at: March 14, 2012)
  • Oliver, M. (2005) ‘The Problem with Affordance’, E-Learning and Digital Media, 2(4), pp. 402–413.
  • Wright, S. and Parchoma, G. (2011) ‘Technologies for Learning? An Actor-Network Theory Critique of “Affordances” in Research on Mobile Learning’, Research in Learning Technology, 19(3), pp. 247–258.
  • Categorization of Affordances,

#H807 case-studies in elearning innovation (4): Use of e-portfolios and blogging in Teacher Education

This case study investigates the introduction of e-portfolios in three teacher education programmes at the University of Wolverhampton.  PebblePAD ( was used as the e-portfolio system.

The case study discusses some pedagogical principles that justified the adoption:

  • Making teacher education more authentic
  • Encouraging deeper engagement with course material by stimulating linking lesson observations with theoretical understanding
  • Stimulating learner ownership and control
  • Develop critical thinking skills, underpinned  by a ‘dialogic’ approach
  • Developing a Community of Practice that survives graduation
  • Gibbs/ Kolb reflective cycle.  This is a series of writing and thinking frames to encourage deeper levels of learning
  • Patchwork text approach.  This focuses on developing shared short formative writing into summative pieces.
  • Develop a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) (rather than a mere content repository).

The author describes the introduction as an astounding success.  Success factors include:

  • Training and support for staff and students.
  • E-mentoring system for ongoing support (system of graduated students supporting subsequent student cohorts)
  • Introduction was based on sound pedagogical principles.
  • Early online socialization
  • Expectation that reflection and analysis will continue beyond the classroom.
  • Providing a safe environment for students to share thoughts.

“Taking an approach which supports confidence and esteem building, early writing, rapid feedback moving into writing/ reflective communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991, Wenger, 2005) is hugely beneficial and supports meta-learning.”

There are drawbacks as well and the author honestly describes her feelings of isolation and frustration that befell her during the pilot programme.  She found that e-portfolios weren’t regarded as seriously as other innovations by colleagues.  “False dichotomies” were created by school directives such as content delivery vs. dialogic approach, VLE vs.  E-portfolios that divided many staff and making that the e-portfolios were often considered as an add-on rather than integral to learning.  The author found support in professional communities, leading to an invitation to contribute to a book on e-portfolios.

I found this the case study the most instructive of the four, because of the attention for the learner experience, the honest description of drawbacks and the clear links between the technology and the elements of learning theory on which the adoption of new technology was based.


Gerbic, P., Lewis, L. and Amin, N.M. (n.d.) ‘Student perspectives of eportfolios: Change over four semesters’, Available here

#H807 case-studies in elearning innovation (3): Use of Video-Conferencing in Classics Studies

This case-study discusses the adoption of video-conferencing in the Classics departments of 3 universities in Wales.  Seminars on specialized topics were alternately organized at each university with students and academic staff from the other 2 institutions participating in discussion-based sessions.
Video-conferencing has allowed the 3 departments to improve the quality of their programme by offering a wider range of seminars from specialized lecturers in a time and cost effective way.
Student and lecturer feedback are mainly positive.  Students consider the video-lectures to be complementary to their face-to-face activities, but are nevertheless receptive for a stronger e-learning component.  Lecturers appreciate being part of a wider academic team and the  academic discussions during the seminars, which are often attended by academics from several institutions.  Students also appreciate the opportunity to observe these academic discussions, engaging in a kind of legitimate peripheral practice (Wenger).  Technical issues with software and difficulties to get bookings for the conference room proved the main obstacles in this case study.
It’s a rather unremarkable case study in which a technology is used to improve the quality of the learner experience.  As in other case studies the e-learning component is seen as a complement to the face-to-face activities in the programme.  Opportunities for inter-university student interaction are passingly mentioned – the title says only ‘collaborative teaching’ -, but it seems that there is clearly a lot of potential here for further development of the e-learning component.  I believe that these kinds of initiatives are probably the only way small universities can still provide a sufficient quality and survive in the changing HE landscape.

#H807 case-studies in elearning innovation (2): Online Msc in Strategic Management in Africa

This case study description is part of Activity 2 – Week 2 in the H807 course at the OU.

The second case study describes the introduction of an online MSc in Strategic Management course by the University of Derby.  The course had been running some years as a face-to-face course and was then adapted to be offered both as a blended learning programme in Malawi and Botswana, and as a ‘pure’ online course.  In the blended learning option Derby Un. lecturers organized regular intensive 3-day seminars in the country.

The author is very critical of the experience and lists a number of encountered problems:

  • The online programme proved expensive due to additional time use (overhead, limited IT literacy, technical problems, slow typing)
  • Retention rates were lower with the online variant.  For the blended variant retention rates were similar to the face-to-face variant.
  • Many students had problems to access to materials due to low bandwidth speeds.
  • There was no audio- or video-conferencing component built in, as many students had insufficient internet connection speeds.
  • The author felt the online course was imposed by the institution to reach administrative targets.
  • Due to these problems students were not satisfied with the course.
Although the case study lacks suggestions on how the course could be improved or a discussion of potential cultural factors that hampered the adoption of elearning, the case-study highlights some important considerations to take when introducing an online course:
  • Outline what what IT access and skills students need to have to complete the course;
  • Provide technical IT support to staff and students
  • Monitor time use for all parts of the course (development, update, marking, tutoring…)
  • Make a cost-benefit analysis.  In particular for small student cohorts a blended approach might be more cost-effective.
  • Ensure sufficient staff buy-in