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The online learning revolution

The online learning revolution

Mitch Coffman
June 2, 2010

Many people who have put a lot of thought into it – and many others who have also bet something of their fortunes on it - believe the future holds a customized learning experience for every student. Odds are it will not look exactly as pictured in the 2009 Star Trek reboot movie with little Vulcans in their individual learning pods. However, it could very well come about as described in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn. Once-marginal technologies will revolutionize teaching and learning and the result will be an education system looking nothing like the one we have presently.

Disrupting Class describes disruptive technologies and makes analogies to education. A disruptive technology edges in from the outside and is used by those not in the market for the dominant technology. Those with a vested interest in the dominant technology don’t perceive the disrupter as a threat until it is too late. Eventually the disruptive technology becomes the new dominant technology.

The book cites the example of Sony’s first transistor radios which were marketed to teenagers who would never have been in the market for the dominant technology of beautiful, expensive console radios. Even though the experience of listening to transistor radios was poorer than that of listening to console radios, Sony made customers out of a group that previously had been non-consumers of radios. A certain population – teenagers with limited funds – chose transistor radios over no radio at all. Console radio makers didn’t see transistors as a threat for many years, giving Sony critical time to improve their technology. Eventually transistor technology became cheaper AND better than vacuum tube technology, and vacuum tubes were displaced.

The authors argue traditional classroom-based learning with a limited number of students lined up in rows listening to generalized instructions is being disrupted by computer-based customized learning. Right now computer-based learning is being used mostly by those who would otherwise be non-consumers of certain classes. Like yesteryear’s teenagers who chose transistor radios over no radios at all, students in small, rural Idaho towns are taking computer-based AP classes or a foreign language they otherwise would not study. However, this is just the beginning.

The mostly-customized education that every Idaho public school student with an Internet connection is going to have likely will be similar to the freshman math classes every University of Idaho student has experienced at the Polya Mathematics Center since 2001. Adding customized, mastery-based software that lets students work problems with an infinite number of variables – no two equations are ever the same – as many times as they need to master concepts has been proven to yield more knowledge for more students than lecture plus solo practice leading to a quiz.

The implications of taking this to scale are staggering. It’s like discovering El Dorado, or the polio vaccine. It seems we know how to make American students smarter with the help of customized, computer-based learning. All we lack is the political will to “make it so.”

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