What disruptors really want

Fear of the Dark

I had thought we’d seen the back of the whole disruption nonsense. Audrey Watters exposed it as a myth ages ago, I’ve written about how it influenced the whole MOOC narrative, and even Forbes don’t like it. So it was with a weary sigh that I noticed Richard Branson had organised an event called “Disruptors -The Future of Education: Does the Current Model Make the Grade?“. This featured the Khan Academy, Pearson and Teach For All.

I didn’t watch any of the event, maybe there were some very interesting presentations. But by labelling it Disruptors, the intention is made clear. Disruption, as set out by Christensen, is in fact very rare. I think it only actually applies about 1% of the time that term is claimed. But Christensen wouldn’t get rich by talking about a rare occurrence so has pushed the idea that it happens everywhere. The replacement of analogue photography by digital is the classic example. That really was disruption and swept away a whole industry. When it does happen, the thing about disruption is that it is absolutely brutal. A whole industry is replaced by a new one. This is not making improvements (that is the sustaining technology), it is completely destroying a sector and replacing it with a new one. It is an extinction event.

If you are claiming disruption then, you believe the following three things:

  1. A complete, systemic change will overtake the sector
  2. The current incumbents will not survive
  3. The current incumbents are incapable of dealing with the new world, which will be populated by new entrants.

This is what disruption means. If you don’t believe this, then it’s not disruption. It may be technology innovation, it may be new hybrid models, but it’s not disruption. Now look at that list and ask yourself if we want that for education? It would mean the closure of schools, thousands of teachers redundant, and education run by new providers. Maybe it will be a better system, but that is a hell of a lot of, well, disruption.

I’m sure there were a lot of well-meaning people at the Branson event. People who really believe in making change in education that will benefit learners. But ask yourself why Branson is suddenly so interested in it? He is not a passionate supporter of the public sector. And look at that guest list: Pearson, Teach For All. You can bet they want disruption in its absolute sense as they will hope to be the new entrants who reap all that education money. And you can also think this panel has the ear of government (why anyone would listen to Branson on education is a mystery to me).

One of the tricks would-be disruptors like to play is to label anyone who disagrees with them as stuck in the past and resistant to change. “They simply don’t get it” is the refrain. This is where educational technologists have a role to play I think. As a group we are generally the people who have pushed for change, are keen to embrace technology and explore possibilities. Our concerns cannot be as easily dismissed as a refusal to accept change. If they want to work with educators to make things better, that’s great, bringing in ideas from outside the sector is always useful. If they want disruption then remember what their ultimate goal is.

Here was the banner for the Branson event. It is, as David Kernohan highlighted on twitter to me, hilarious. But it is also revealing. Their vision of the future will be shiny and informal (not necessarily bad things). It will also be Branson-centric:



    1. Thanks Mark – you are quite right, innovation is meaningless. Also people don’t really want all the stuff that is required for innovation – failure, people who might be doing not much, letting go of control – they just want that innovative stuff.

  1. People have written about innovation and now disruption in education for decades. The big disruption in 1963 was 8 mm film. We are still failing to solve the same problems which are human ones and not technological ones. Come on Branson – invest in those less able to get an education, or students holding down multiple jobs just to pay their way.

    1. Ha, yes it’s strange the way they don’t want to do that kind of “disruption”, where they just help people out, but don’t actually, you know, make any cash.

  2. Martin, you have made compelling points and a riveting argument. I do wonder how much of this is about enterprise, and the marketing of enterprise in education (not enterprise education) rather than anything to do with actual disruption, as there does not appear to be one original idea to be seen on their highlights page (http://www.virgin.com/disruptors/watch-disruptors-on-education-highlights) however, there did seem to be many entrepreneurs and companies touting their wares, even if these are wearing philanthropic costumes (https://www.affordable-learning.com/)? So perhaps this is a case of marketing and hype rather than a serious exercise?

  3. Your list of three things is good and helps to focus the discussion. Yes, disruption, at least in the way some are using it, seems to be about extinction rather than improvement. It’s also about shifting Higher Ed from the public sector to the unstable, for-profit arena of entrepreneurial startups. I think Audrey Watters had something to say about this as well. The whole hero thing is also hard to take, as though some super entrepreneur can come along and single-handedly create a better model that will replace the current system (Sebastian Thrun seems to think of himself as such a figure). I am reminded of a post I saw while following the #FeesMustFall campaign: “We are the Ones, we have been waiting for” ( https://goo.gl/mIEUgK).

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