Harnessing Technology or Disrupting Class two sides of the same coin?

The many excellent BECTA reports addressing school and college use of e-learning and learning technologies offered a vision of an insightful vision of the future, the 2008 report “Analysis of emerging trends affecting the use of technology in education

Research to support the delivery and development of Harnessing Technology: Next Generation Learning 2008–14 was perhaps one of the most accurate and forward looking pieces in terms of highlighting the up and coming trends .

BECTA (and its researchers) looked at toward the US and into the UK to highlight what is believed would be the key trends in technology’s use in learning and education.

By contrast also in 2008 Clayton M Christensen published his work “Disrupting Class”, – with the sub title “How Disruptive Innovation will Change the Way the World Learns.

While Christensen’s sub title talks about how the world will learn, his work principally addresses the challenges and issues faced by the US education system. Indeed Christensen’s introduction paints a bleak assessment of the US school system.

So where are we now?

With the present changes taking place in both the UK and US education systems it is interesting to look back to see where we have arrived at in “Harnessing Technology” or “Disrupting Class” as both countries education systems look to adapt and evolve to the massive changes technology is bringing to learners lives and how they live them and consequently how and where they learn.

It is almost full marks to the Becta research team in their analysis of the trends most likely to impact upon young people. While they certainly picked up the trend toward mobile devices, I am not so sure they quite foresaw the rise of the APP for use on the mobile phone, but who did?


The Becta research related to the learner and the learner’s context identified four emergent or potential future trends:

• Consumption of multiple technologies by young people

• Increased dependence of young people on mobile technologies for online

social networking

• Increased parental encouragement of their primary age children’s

educational uses of computers in the home

• Increased use of TV-on-demand by young people in the home.


Christensen by contrast delves deeply into the malaise he believes that is effecting the US education system, beyond simply looking the impact of emerging technologies on the lives of learners and how they could be used to support learning. Interestingly his solutions are aimed not at harnessing emerging technologies for learning, but at the school system itself (by disrupting it) and centred principally on giving schools the right framework to innovate.

Sharing best practise

Perhaps the US education system would benefit by looking at many of the excellent research papers produced by Becta to give learner perspective and how education systems can harness new technologies for learning. And perhaps UK schools could look toward the US for new school models for the emerging Academies and Free Schools as how to innovate and differentiate disruptively! Any company or organisation that can bridge both countries in learning technologies should be highly valued as the opportunity to share best practise from both education systems will be of huge value. The BECTA collection of over 150 papers are available at https://www.e-learningcentre.co.uk/Resources/Becta_Collection

Which technologies?

However, it is interesting to note that while the BECTA researchers focused on how emergent consumer technologies could be harnessed to support learning, Christensen looked for the development and adaptation of new solutions from the software developer market as opposed to the consumer market and in particular “Applications” – pieces of sophisticated software developed for specific purposes. (Not APPS as so often associated with i-phones).

To Christensen the ability to deliver personalised learning or student centric learning is paramount and to provide platforms of tools that will enable non-professionals (by this we must take it he means non-professional software developers) “to create software that helps different types of learners” is one of key themes. These tutor tools are likely to emerge as some form of virtual tutoring argues Christensen.

Learning exchanges

These tools and vitally mechanisms for their exchange – via learner user networks will grow and become enhanced as learners, parents and of course teachers contribute to what will become “Learning App exchanges” with content developed and catering for all types and styles of learner. This model is believable and likely in our view to only accelerate the trend toward virtual schools – already a strong trend in the US according to research published by Ambient Insight.

The BT Dare2Share initiative is an early example of “learning app exchanges” – this uses mobile devices video capability to capture how BT employees share issues and solve a particular problem, and it is then as the name suggests shared. Seehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtVYkEdGtfo for an overview.

Learner – Teacher – Parent

This “Learner-Teacher-Parent” developed content and exchange mechanism is what is viewed by Christensen as second stage disruption of the classroom. Indeed the work of Professor Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiments have shown that, in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other, if they’re motivated by curiosity and peer interest.

Technology replacing the Teacher

The first stage of disruption in Christensen’s model is broadly how ICT is deployed in the classroom, with computer based learning replacing monolithic learning. This is driven or rather made possible by the falling prices of computers, e-learning content (and a parallel recognition that e-learning has improved in quality), but is driven ultimately by budgetary constraints (and looming teacher shortages in the US) – in short technology is substituting the teacher!


Christensen predicts that technologies share of the education budget in the US will grow from 5% to 50%, and the flip in the substitution curve will begin in 2012! A new virtuous circle of demand will emerge that will see both a growing demand for e-learning content due to its cost saving, leading in turn to a fall in e-learning content prices due to the rise in demand and an ever improving quality of learning materials as technology to create e-learning improves and improves.

What we saw in the Corporate market

Is this argument a strong argument? Well if we look to the corporate market, the impact of the 2008-9 economic crisis saw massive downward pressure on corporate training budgets and a consequent strong uptake of e-learning and other web based communication technologies. Technology did in some ways replace the trainer, will technology now replace the teacher, or at least fill some of the gaps. Time will tell.

So what does the future hold, and how will we “Harness Disruptive Technologies”

Will a new generation of Learning Platforms with easy and intuitive tools to create learning content for by Learners, Teachers and Parents, with modes to allow for its delivery in some form of content exchange model emerge?

In addition will these platforms include social learning environments to allow collaborative content development and collaborative learning and collaborative peer to peer sharing of learning?

Will these new Learning Platforms support the exchange and delivery of learning over a multitude of differing devices?

It would be futile to try and specify the next generation of learning platform, given the speed of technology and in fact all (and much much more) of these requirements can and are being met in the corporate e-learning market already. The challenge lies in firstly giving the schools the right infrastructure in which to innovate in, this may well be Academies, Free Schools and Virtual Schools (This is of course third stage disruption).

Can supply meet demand?

There is one more crucial requirement that is not addressed and that is ensuring the open access for innovative and creative (read small) suppliers of e-learning and learning technologies to the education market.

If “the flip” is to happen and education expenditure on e-learning accelerate from 5% of total expenditure to 50%, and prices are to fall to allow all of this to happen and quality improve the capacity of supply will have to grow rapidly, therefore the prevalent trend of public sector procurement to work with large vendors, with frameworks and approved supplier lists etc… will need some “innovative consideration” as well.