“The Disruption Machine” and education

The timing of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article “The Disruption Machine” (6/23/14) seems almost intentionally planned to mock my summer work for the GS Adaptability Project. I’m spending my summer reading books about school change and disruption, and along comes Lepore to argue, especially in regards to schools, that the whole innovative disruption concept is harmful and overhyped. She writes, “Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change; it’s blind to continuity.”

So is the entire premise of bringing together a team of teachers at our school to study how disruptive innovation might affect our institution a foolish notion? I don’t believe so. Lepore mocks the silliness of trying to apply some aspects of business strategy to educational institutions, but we are a business, and businesses can fail. They are especially vulnerable when rapid technological change reshapes the landscape around them, and I think it behooves us to survey that landscape carefully. Lepore criticizes Christiansen and Eyring’s “The Innovative University” (2011) for creating a fad for MOOCs and blended learning, but not only have we not participated in that fad, our school has largely been blind to its existence. We are in no danger of jumping on that bandwagon too soon. We’ve already had time to see the big disappointment that MOOCs have been. Any aspects of online teaching that we might choose to embrace will have been thoroughly vetted before we join in.

I am in total agreement with Lepore’s criticism of the whole Enlightenment idea of progress and its contribution to the pro-disruptive innovation pseudo religion. That said, a lot of money is being thrown at innovation in the areas of healthcare and education right now, and it is crucial to America’s future that those two areas of the economy show improvement. We need to get better results for a lower cost in both areas, and there is opportunity for innovators to move in and shake up staid, overpriced, under-performing providers of both healthcare and education. From where I sit, it seems like 98% of the online educational offerings fail to improve upon the traditional classroom experience, but oh that two percent! In the cloud computing era, those offerings that succeed can scale so quickly that they can become available to every school in the country as rapidly as those schools choose to adopt them.

I guess the truth is that I want to agree with Lepore, and I sympathize with her very well argued stance, but schools simply can’t make the dangerous choice to ignore the developments in the world of technology that could threaten our business model in the very near future.


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