How disruptive is innovation in education?

French president Macron proposed in his speech at La Sorbonne the creation of a European Agency for Breakthrough Innovation. Disruptive innovation was back on the public agenda.

Disruptive comes from the latin “disrumpere”, shatter, burst, split, break apart. Uber is the best example of a disruption. French philosopher Eric Sadin writes in his book “la siliconisation du monde” (éditions L’échappée) that disruption is a passive form of innovation, applying the same technology to any sector. For instance, deciding that the weather forecast will now be given by Artificial Intelligence is not an innovation. It is just a decision to use a technological process – AI – and substitute the traditional weather presenter. Insurers, referees, cashiers, bus drivers, archivists… will suffer the same process at a 95% or more probability.

What happens in education?

Most edtech innovators present their solutions as disruptive, “breaking apart” from traditional classroom environment, enabling learners to learn anywhere, anytime, at their own pace. Educative apps or learning management systems are presented as revolutionary tools. AI will substitute teachers, adaptive learning will help reinvent the school’s physical spaces…

But how disruptive is innovation in education?

In their famous article “disruptive technologies: catching the wave” (HBR January-February 1995), Boyer and Christensen remind us of a crucial question  for innovators who decide to launch a technology or develop a product: do their customers want it? They also tell us of “companies that listened to their customers, gave them the product performance they were looking for but were hurt by the very technologies their customers led them to ignore”. To explain the differences in the impact of certain kinds of technological innovations on a given industry, the authors introduce the concept of performance trajectories – the rate at which the performance of a product has improved, and is expected to improve, over time. “Almost every industry has a critical performance trajectory. In photocopiers, an important performance trajectory is improvement in number of copies per minute. In disk drives, one crucial measure of performance is storage capacity”.

When it comes to innovation in education, two questions arise:

-       How important are the “customers”’ views for innovation in education?

-       What is the critical performance trajectory of the education sector?

The first question requires an understanding of who the customers are in education. Many will even turn down the question as speaking of customer will presuppose giving up education to obscure market forces.

As innovation in education is often described as student-centric, our first “customers” are the students themselves. It is time to remember that disruptive before being a synonym of “innovative” meant “troublesome” and a disruptive student was the one causing disorder. We will assume that new millennial learners will claim for digital innovation in the classroom and proactively make use of it. As school is compulsory, our innovative  – and from time to time troublesome – “customers” have no other choice than “buying” what education has to offer but there is a key advantage in making education as attractive as possible to learners as the ultimate goal remains student’s engagement. Giving a voice to students in the design of the curriculum may after all be the most disruptive innovation!

But there are other “customers” starting with the teachers. We usually see them as a “provider” of education – and they are often described as an “obstacle” to innovation in education. In fact many education innovators want to bypass the teacher and directly engage with students through technology. Remember that for many edtech entrepreneurs, school and teachers are boring! (my  blog) But they are wrong. Teachers are our first customers! Teachers have to be involved in the innovation process changing therefore the whole paradigm: it is not so much customers’ views that matter but customers’ experience. It is not enough to listen to teachers’ views. It is mandatory to cocreate innovation with them.

What is then the critical performance trajectory of the education sector? What is clear for photocopiers (number of pages copied per minute) or for disk drives (storage capacity) is much less clear for education? Should we look at employability level, i.e. number of students hired when they exit school? This will mean conditioning the performance trajectory to the very end of the schooling process and not taking in consideration social inequalities. Should we look at test results at different age? This will mean conditioning the performance trajectory to standard test when innovators know that learning should be adapted to individual capacities and desire and not the reverse.

Should we look at students’ and teachers’ happiness and well being? Why not as we will all agree that education is fundamental to personal and collective fulfillment.

The difficulty with innovation in education and happiness is that there is no universal performance indicator. What could be disruptive for one is not disruptive for the other. The question is therefore who can decide if an innovation is disruptive or not: students? teachers?

An anecdote could well illustrate the dilemma: a group of teachers in a french high school “stole” (or saved) old blackboards that were condemned to destruction as they were soon to be replaced by electronic whiteboards. As “customers” they valued the blackboard still as an innovative instrument and see it as central to their students’ happiness and to their own. Electronic whiteboard were not for them a disruptive innovation.

However they may have forgotten that decisions regarding innovation in education have to be shared. Apparently they didn’t consult with their students – their users – to decide whether they felt happier watching them write on a blackboard or having them interact through a whiteboard.

Teachers must know if they try to stop the wave that they can be rolled over by it. But they still have the choice to catch it with their students!

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