| October 19, 2012

Video: 'Disruptive innovation' revolutionizes education

In this month's Perspective, Heritage Foundation experts Lindsey M. Burke and Stuart M. Butler meditate on the potential future of higher education. They write:

One thing is certain: Tomorrow’s model is going to look very different from the current paradigm. Higher education appears to be on the verge of the same kind of massive transformation—or “disruptive innovation”—that has changed the news/newspaper industry so dramatically. The expensive bricks-and-mortar, “sage on a stage” model of college, largely unchanged for centuries, is being challenged by radically different visions of education.

The piece echoes many of the themes laid out by Goldwater scholar Dan Lips in a 2011 OCPA paper, "Education in the Digital Age: Policy Reforms to Improve Learning Options in Oklahoma." That paper focused on K-12 education, but Lips' message foreshadowed the Burke-and-Butler message: "Disruptive innovation" has come to education -- and it would be to the benefit of Oklahomans if we embrace it.

As Lips points out, schools that harness technology to replace some traditional instruction can reduce the number of teachers needed and pay remaining teachers – presumably the most effective ones – more than they otherwise could.

More importantly, it appears that online and blended learning education programs improve outcomes for students. According to a meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education that focused primarily on higher education, "students who [take] all or part of a class online [perform] better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction."

It's easy to be skeptical, though. Should elementary school students -- who might otherwise engage the natural world with wonder and curiosity -- really be ensconced before laptops and iPads in the classroom or at home? Should college students -- who often seem to be more interested in athletics than academics -- really be trusted to motivate themselves? Would we, could we, should we really jettison ineffective teachers for potentially ineffective -- and inevitably glitchy -- technology ... and what if we inadvertently jettisoned the next Socrates?

Education reformers, teachers and parents will have to proceed thoughtfully, but, for the most part, the primary advantage of digital learning dwarfs those questions: Online education enables teachers and parents to customize education for each child. Educators -- no matter where they live, provided they have Internet access -- may pull materials from the best teachers and programs from across the country. Children -- no matter where they live -- may engage these materials. If you prefer a homemade meal comprised of the best ingredients from around the world to a fast-food cheeseburger, you can surely relate.

In a recent, not-to-be-missed Wall Street Journal article that exposes the myth of a teacher shortage, education reform professor Jay P. Greene explains why we don't need to hire more teachers:

Parents like the idea of smaller class sizes in the same way that people like the idea of having a personal chef. Parents imagine that their kids will have one of the Iron Chefs. But when you have to hire almost 3.3 million chefs, you're liable to end up with something closer to the fry-guy from the local burger joint.

There is also a trade-off between the number of teachers we have and the salary we can offer to attract better-quality people. As the teacher force has grown by almost 50% over the past four decades, average salaries for teachers (adjusted for inflation) have grown only 11%, the Department of Education reports. Imagine what kinds of teachers we might be able to recruit if those figures had been flipped and we were offering 50% more pay without having significantly changed student-teacher ratios. Having better-paid but fewer teachers could also save us an enormous amount on pension and health benefits, which have risen far more than salaries in cost per teacher over the past four decades.

Now, thanks to ever-expanding online programs, students can have one of the Iron Chefs. Case in point: Online, students can access -- for free -- world-class lectures from professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It's as though the public education system were a single train track, each student a car and the teacher the engine. Say a car is capable of going faster -- or needs to go slower -- than the engine is pushing it? Say a car wants to explore other tracks? In the public school system, those options don't really exist.

Digital education has opened countless new tracks and enabled cars to attach themselves to the right engines.

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