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.