Do Something Disruptive

There are really two ways to use technology for teaching and learning. Johnson and Maddux refer to it as "Type I" and "Type II" (see here, for example). Alan November refers to it as "automation" and "infomation" (see here). Others refer to them as "sustaining" and "disruptive" (see here).

The bottom line is that Type I approaches simply automate conventional practice - they support the ways teachers currently teach. Type II uses are those that allow students and teachers to do things that they couldn't easily do before, or perhaps couldn't do at all. Business recognizes that although Type I uses of technology make work more efficient, there is only incremental improvement and benefits. It is with Type II uses of technology that real gains are to be made.

For example, the typewriter is Type I since it makes writing more efficient (it's neater, and with practice you can type faster than you can write). The word processor, however, is Type II because of the ease of revision. If you need to revise or edit a paper, there is little advantage to having a typewriter over having a pen and paper. In both cases, you have to start over with a new copy. With a word processor, you simply make your changes to the existing copy and print a new one. In fact, writing teachers have noticed that young writers no longer do separate, distinct drafts of a paper (1st draft, 2nd draft, etc.). Young writers now simply do a single rolling, evolving draft. They may print a new version at certain points of their work, but each of these is not an end product of work on a specific draft, but rather a snapshot in time of the single evolving paper.

Other Type I examples include drill and practice software, student response systems ("clickers"), and SMARTboards. Each of these are more efficient ways of doing what teachers have done for a long time. But, since we aren't really changing what teachers have done - we aren't changing eduction - they won't mean that we will reach more students than we have in the past or that our schools will achieve anything they haven't done in the past. There's an old saying that if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten - even if you're doing it more efficiently.

Keep in mind that what matters most is how the technology is used, not which technology is used. For example, PowerPoint to create slides for a presentation is a Type I application, but students using PowerPoint to create multimedia documents to teach others about a topic they have been studying could be a Type II application. Using a graphing calculator in a math class with the traditional Algebra text is a Type I use, but using a graphing calculator for modeling real (messy) data and studying functions is a Type II use.

Other Type II examples of using technology in education include digital storytelling, or WebQuests, or using blogs, wikis, and podcasts to build community and literacy. These uses have been shown to get students excited about learning, to learn basic skills, to use and develop higher order thinking skills, and to motivate hard to teach students. These tools have the ability to change education.

David Thornburg puts it this way:

All too often, we see teachers who are using technologies today trying to do the same kinds of things they did in the past, only more efficiently. I'm not going to go back to using a typewriter now that I use a word processor. But those are examples of what I'd call doing things differently--and the real power comes when you do different things.

But there is more to Type I and Type II uses of educational technology than the opportunity to improve education and to reach more students. There are risks involved. But this isn't from embracing Type II uses, but rather from not embracing them. David Thornburg again:

When kids who are that fluent with these tools encounter an educational system that is predominantly driven by the awesome power of a sheet of slate and a stick of chalk, then they're in trouble. Or the teacher is in trouble, more appropriately, because the student will just tune [the teacher] out and do this project at home. [He'll say,] "It's not worth my time to try it here, I don't have access to the resources. I'll just get through the day."

In fact, the whole sustaining/disrupting idea comes from the world of business and the writings of Clayton Christensen, who "focuses on the critical distinction between sustaining technologies that enhance current trends in an industry and disruptive technologies - innovations that herald the wave of the future." He argues that even well managed companies fail if they don't respond to innovation in a timely manner. It is adaptive organizations that survive and thrive in the presence of disruptive technologies. (See a summary here.)

That doesn't mean that it's easy. In fact it can generate a lot of fear. That's because Type II uses can fundamentally threaten well established practices. When graphing calculators first came out in the late 1980's, I bought one because I knew they represented great potential for teaching math. I showed it to a close friend, who was also a math teacher. Her first words were, "Wow! This is great!" But, without missing a beat, she went on to say, "I hope none of my students have one!"

David Thornburg had this to say about 1-to-1 computing, perhaps the biggest disruptive innovation facing schools in along time:

There's a realization that when you go below 4 to 1, as an educator, your world changes. I think that the teachers and administrators who are resistant to one-to-one computing definitely do understand the implications. These are very bright people. They know that the world of education as they know it will end. ...

How can we help schools adapt to disruptive technologies? And more importantly, how can we take advantage of the "wave of the future" to improve schools and reach more students?

Additional Information

* Fear and Disruptive Technology