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Disrupting Class Misses the Point

A flawed model offline is no better online.

Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen and colleagues makes a very compelling case for why online instruction (OI) is economically a better way to deliver instruction than the traditional face-to-face (FTF) model. Briefly, fewer teachers are needed, since fewer versions of standard courses (e.g., introductory algebra or Spanish) are needed and since lower-priced assistants can provide the lion’s share of the support. Fewer teachers, of course, mean a lower cost to deliver instruction.

While Christensen’s argument is more complicated—the book has 230 pages—the basic argument is pretty clear: OI automates, in the classic sense of that term, the FTF model. Automation is a way to save money, and saving money is especially important now that we are in a global recession. If only it were that simple!

Where’s the Educational Value?

Broadly speaking, there are two flaws in Christensen’s conception of OI.

Flaw 1: The economic gains that accrue from automating FTF come at a loss of educational quality. FTF is, typically, a synchronous process with 30 or so students and a teacher contemporaneously located in the same room. OI is, typically, an asynchronous process in which teacher and students don’t see each other and are potentially scattered across the globe.

In order for a teacher to manage an asynchronous, OI class, the teacher typically needs to highly script the course so the students know exactly what they need to do. Elliot’s daughter, a senior in a big state school that offers FTF and OI classes, comments on how that extreme degree of scripting reduces the value of the learning experience: “My online classes are really a piece of cake; the teacher tells us everything we need to do, so all I have to do is follow the instructions. In my regular classes I have to figure out what the teacher thinks is important, how to prepare for the tests, how to work with my fellow students—and I have to do that for each class. That’s the hard part of a class!” But that’s also where the really important learning takes place.

Flaw 1’s bottom line: While Disrupting Class documents numerous educational advantages of OI, it simply isn’t clear that those advantages outweigh the considerable educational disadvantages of OI.

Back to the 20th Century

Flaw 2: Disrupting Class’s conception of OI automates an outdated and thus flawed model of instruction. Delivering courses in a step-by-step curriculum was the dominant instructional paradigm of the 20th century. That model supported the industrial-age workplace. Knock, knock: The industrial age is gone and we are in the 21st century.

For the knowledge-work marketplace of the 21st century, knowing a body of information is only important when it is used in the service of solving a problem, doing a task, working in a team, etc. School in the 21st century, then, is no longer about students taking circumscribed courses in a step-by-step curriculum but is rather about school as a safe, protected workplace where teams of students practice 21st-century activities—working as a team to develop a recycling program for the community, for example.

When a student needs to know an area of knowledge or develop some specific skills, then taking an OI short course may well be an appropriate strategy. But in this knowledge-work, project-based model of education, OI is just a piece of the educational enterprise of the school.

Bricks and Mortar for the 21st Century

School, with its buildings and resources, is the students’ base from which they reach out to the community, to experts, to those with challenges in need of solutions. School houses the students while they work together and learn. School better not go away anytime school.

Class is indeed being disrupted—but not by online instruction. Class is being disrupted by the demand for America’s schools to prepare America’s children for the global, 21st-century marketplace. By focusing primarily on the economics of education, Disrupting Class misses the heart and soul of education—namely, preparing our children to be healthy, joyful and productive citizens.

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow Learning in Ann Arbor, Mich. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder of GoKnow.