calling bullshit,  edtech

The Indisruptables


I’ve often banged on about the way disruption is an obsession which has gone beyond silicon valley now, and Audrey Watters has written about its status as myth. But I wonder why it persists. This was prompted again today by this piece on MOOCs. The article says that, hey, it turns out MOOC learners are professionals and those at university. So much for the democratisation argument then. But this quote really caught my eye:

“MOOCs may not have disrupted the education market, but they are disrupting the labor market.”

You can almost see them running around the office in panic:
“We haven’t disrupted higher education!”
“Well we’ve got to disrupt something for chrissakes, look at the money we’ve spent.”
“The labour market?”
“Ok, yes, we’re disrupting the shit out of that right now!”

Why is disruption _so_ important to achieve (or because it hardly ever actually occurs, to be said to be achieved?). That quote is telling I feel. It comes down to identity and self validation. Like other persistent myths (learning styles, digital natives), people believe them because it helps their own sense of identity. Our identity is framed by a sense of belonging to certain communities, of ‘we-ness’. Those who cling to disruption despite all evidence to the contrary, do so because they have invested in it personally. It becomes a short hand for a bunch of character traits they want to portray: modern, dynamic, charismatic, revolutionary. If we view it like this then we can see why it is so persistent, since any attack on it is a fundamental attack on a self image they have developed. I guess the only way to combat this is to provide a new self image that is more positive, which people can migrate to. By way of this here are some terms you can try substituting for disruption/disrupting:

  • Undermining labour laws
  • Excusing redundancy
  • Wasting money
  • Reinventing an existing product
  • The learning styles of the tech industry
  • Lacking clear goals
  • Inventing a false history

You’ve probably got some of your own too. But viewing it as an identity issue is probably the way to overcome its rather pernicious influence.


  • Kathy Robinson

    Hi Martin

    It is always interesting to have your take on MOOCs. However, I would like to take you up on naming learning styles as a myth. I know that the cognitive neuroscientists are making a big fuss about this at the moment and indeed they are likely correct that there is no cognitive neuroscience evidence for such a category. However, that does not mean that learning styles do not exist in the minds of those of us that are learning. Learning style as a social construction but surely no less valid. Also, at a biological level there is indisputable evidence for distinct auditory, visual etc areas of the brain.

    Incidentally , as a fellow history student your may be interested to read. or at least glance through, David Egerton’s Shock of the Old. You will find Egerton is a comrade in arms

    • mhawksey

      Hi Kathy,

      It’s interesting comment on ‘learning styles’, I think the very reason ‘learning styles’, as a theory (rather than a broad construct) has gained popularity is because many think it feels right, but when the evidence points to something else should we not question?

    • admin

      Hi Kathy, I don’t want to make this a learning styles conversation – there is lots that’s problematic about them (they are not consistent across time, they can vary according to topic, it’s often beneficial to use more than one mode). I think the issue is more that they represent an idea that maybe had a grain of validity (like disruption itself) but got over-simplified and over-applied.

  • Tanya Dorey-Elias

    Hi Martin,

    I like the post and agree with it… mostly….

    I can’t help but have more than a little unease when they say that there has been “a decisive shift by MOOC providers to focus on ‘professional’ learners who are taking these courses for career-related outcomes.”

    What I ‘hear’ is “There has been a realization among MOOC providers that they have found a whole lot of folks under-served and walled out of existing educational opportunities who will pay lots of money for poor educational experiences (read anything that approximates a credential).”

    So, no it’s not a surprise that MOOC providers have not “disrupted education”. But neither have we succeeded to extend access and flexibility enough to meet the needs of so many learners already in the workplace.

    • admin

      Hi Tanya, my interpretation of the article was more that they found there wasn’t much money in that market so they’ve concentrated on professionals who are easier to teach, don’t require costly support and have cash. But either way we’re in agreement that if they had focused less on disruption and more on helping open access learners it might have ended better

  • Mike Caulfield (@holden)

    This is broadly true about everything — we move from identity to policy preferences, not the other way around. In fact-checking you quickly realize this is half the reason the truth is bent so badly, because it’s more important it express an orientation towards a situation (read: identity) than it is to mirror reality.

    The more interesting question for me is how you shift people’s identities — their self-view — when it is based on lies and deception. It doesn’t look so promising at first. The famous stories are about the cult members who go to the hilltop to await the end of the world — it doesn’t come, and they lesson they take away is that their faith must have bought a reprieve. Most things are like that.

    I think there are ways, but most are inaccessible to entreprenuers in the venture capital game, because the reality is there’s not a whole lot of profit to be made. The education unicorn is — a unicorn.

    • admin

      Hi Mike, you’re right (as always). I think we can help shift identities a bit – we’ve seen a massive shift in how people think of unmarried couples living together, as a small example.

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