The Future of Education: How Digital Disruption is Coming to a School or University Near You

November 8, 2015

vickiBy: Vicki MacLeod, GTWN Secretary-General and Senior Advisor, Innovation Culture, Telstra

Since electrification, the story of the twentieth century has been the race between education and technology (Goldin and Katz, Harvard University, 2010.)

A total transformation of education is approaching fast, whether the educational establishment is ready or not. 1 Professor Clay Christensen of the Harvard Business School and his colleagues have painted a convincing picture of this transformation in two books. In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clay Christensen, Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn set out a proposal for using technology to better serve students and bring our schools into the 21st Century. Their vision is of no less than a radical change to the way the whole western education system works. If for no other reason, it has drawn criticism from many defenders of the educational status quo.

In The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, Christensen and his co-author Henry J. Eyring expand on Christensen’s theory of disruption. According to Christensen, disruption occurs when the needs of consumers at the lower end of the spectrum are not being met by existing markets. Disruption then occurs when new suppliers enter the market and make a product or service affordable, simple and accessible. This would seem to be the case so far in the strong demand for flexible, cheap (or even free) online learning.

But even more than just a pent up demand for low cost universal education from the underserved, we can see evidence of other economic factors at play. This has become most visible in the US education market, where cheap credit for college loans is a stop gap and is not enough to maintain the younger generation’s standard of living in a global competitive marketplace. Many new graduates are finding that their degrees are not getting them the higher paid jobs that they were expecting, with unemployment amongst new graduates.

Dissatisfaction with the traditional educational pipeline is reflected in the many opinions for and against the value of a higher level education now being voiced in the media. Some of these lead to interesting results. Hamilton Place Strategies2 , for example, analysed the growth in real college costs in the US and plotted this against the net benefits and concluded that a college degree will still be worth the cost until the year 2086, which they see as the point when the two intersect. The Pew Research Center3, has also entered the debate , their analysis showing that the earnings gap between high school and college or university graduates is the largest it has been in almost half a century. So it would still seem to be worthwhile to get a tertiary qualification, right? Or is it?

In a report, released on January 6 2015, the US Federal Reserve provided the results of its analysis of more than 20 years of data and found that, while it generally takes new graduates some time to transition into the job market, today’s graduates are having an even tougher time and many are accepting jobs for which they are overqualified, low-wage jobs or part-time work. According to the report, “It is not clear whether these trends represent a structural change in the labor market, or if they are a consequence of the two recessions and jobless recoveries in the first decade of the 2000s.”

Even though U.S. unemployment has fallen to a five-year low of 7 percent in November, young graduates are entering an economy that is still fragile and far from its pre-recession levels. The report found that graduates from fields that provided technical skills or serve growing parts of the U.S. economy fared better. Healthcare and education graduates had lower unemployment rates of about 3 percent and 4 percent respectively, while construction and architecture majors and liberal arts and social sciences majors experienced the highest levels of unemployment of 7 percent to 8 percent. The authors said this trend of higher unemployment for new graduates began with the 2001 recession, improved when the economy recovered, and deteriorated again during the most recent economic downturn.

In many ways, the discussion of the disruption of education by digital technology has started to become a matter of belief – with a division between those who continue to value institutional learning and the traditional roles of the teacher and the pupil, and those who see the future being in individual based learning via online or virtual coachled environments.

To the latter group, the potential in each student can be unlocked by combining the power of computers, software, and the internet with the human touch of a teacher-as-coach to motivate the student to work hard.

Technology in this view of education is an enabler which brings a range of benefits, including:

• customised lessons adapted to each student’s individual learning style • affordable cost

• accessto lecturesfrom some of the most talented instructors in the world • motivational tricks that mimic the effect of video games

• the ability for students to learn at their own pace and in their own time and place.

Specialists in education point out that what is missing from this picture is motivation. The desire to learn is so important that a human teacher acting as a coach is seen as an indispensible element. Without such a coach, the flexibility for students to learn at their own pace can make it easy to procrastinate and waste time.

In the online environment, teachers will also benefit from their changed role. The main skill of a teacher will need to be in being able to encourage each student to dig deeper into some particular interest that student has—well beyond the teacher’s own knowledge. And from this collaboration, teachers themselves will be learning from working alongside their students.

But do parents have to wait for schools and universities to come on board this new approach to learning, or can parents take a DIY approach? These days, any parent with the skill and drive can team up with inexpensive online tools to give his or her child an education. In many parts of the world, education of children up to a certain age is compulsory, but school attendance is not. When choosing to home educate, parents accept responsibility for planning, implementing, and evaluating their child’s learning program in a suitable learning environment. So it is possible that the ability of individual families to opt out of the education system could in future lead to a change in attitude and more flexibility in how schools educate children and whether they use online resources.

In higher education, students voting with their feet will bring pressure on tertiary institutions to change. Many of the most prestigious colleges and universities are likely to cling to their traditional learning models much longer than more progressive institutions. But some are already embracing the new ‘flipped’ learning model .

booksThe traditional pattern of teaching has been to give students the task of reading textbooks and work on problem sets outside school, while listening to lectures and taking tests in class. In flip teaching, the students use video lessons prepared by their own teacher or third parties. In class students apply the knowledge by solving problems and doing practical work. The teacher as more as a roaming tutor, helping the students when they become stuck, rather than feeding them the basic information. As some of the prestigious colleges and universities start to embrace the new methods, the rest will ultimately follow, especially if those who do are seen to move ahead in the rankings as a result.

Another trend which is transforming attitudes to education is the shift from credentials to certification. Instead of the emphasis being placed on official diplomas and degrees, employers are now demanding proof that a potential employee has actually gained particular skills. Certificates that attest to an ability to write computer code, write a decent report, use a spreadsheet, or give a persuasive speech are going to be worth more and more. These skillbased courses are not necessarily lengthy, either. For example, coding boot camps and codein-a-day programs are more and more popular. For many students, a skills certificate that is valued by a prospective employer may well be worth more than an expensive multi-year degree with an uncertain employment outcome.

1 With thanks to my colleague Sami Makelainen at the Chief Technology Office, Telstra

2 Reported in


4 and http://blogs.lse.

Vicki MacLeod is a telecommunications policy specialist with extensive experience in industry and government in Australia and internationally. She has particular interests in: innovation culture change; the female economy and women’s entrepreneurship; digital economy and society policy; regulation and strategy; comparative global trend analysis in ICT and digital media; and the future of mobile applications in health, education and the silver economy. As Senior Advisor, Innovation Culture in Telstra Operations, Vicki contributes to Telstra’s Innovation Program through providing insight into the female digital economy and its importance for the future growth of the mobile industry. She has also been Secretary-General of the Global Telecom Women’s Network for nearly twenty years. In this role she provides strategic direction, operational support, and liaison with members and external organisations. She is also the chief editor of all of the GTWN publications, including the GTWN’s twentieth anniversary report on the contribution of women to the mobile industry, entitled The Changing Culture of Communication.