Disruptive tech alone won't revolutionize education, says author

When genuine disruption happens, it can create chaos, but it eventually becomes the new normal. What does the pandemic have to teach us about tech and education? And, understanding the long-term trajectory of disruption.

From fire to FTP, innovators have built disruptive technology since the dawn of humanity

Jessica Lui helps her son with his online classroom. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Originally published on January 15, 2021

"Move fast and break things."

Those words, Facebook's company motto until 2014, underlie the thinking in the tech sector and innovation generally: the idea that disruption—breaking down the old way with a newer, better way of doing things—is a universal driver in human progress.

But is this really the case?

When disruption happens, it often creates chaos. And the hope, in the tech sector at least, is that out of that chaos comes a new, better order. On closer examination, however, this doesn't always happen.

Take education, for example. Few sectors have featured more innovation ideas in recent years. A decade ago, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, were set to revolutionize higher learning. The promise was that anyone would be able to do the equivalent of a PhD in quantum physics from the comfort of their bedroom.

Except that it didn't actually turn out that way. Traditional university campuses didn't become ghost towns, and in-class teaching has remained the norm, until this past year, at least.

Mimicing the classroom over video-conferencing apps is more like a "digital version of a backpack," says MIT professor Justin Reich. (Harvard University Press)

Since the pandemic began, online teaching has returned as the only viable option for most students and their teachers and professors. And most people are finding it a challenge, not an advantage.

"Over the last 20 years, education technology evangelists have claimed that we're on the cusp of a sort of dramatic revolution, that new kinds of technology tools are going to completely transform the way we learn online. And that almost universally is not at all what we've seen," Justin Reich told Nora Young, the host of Spark.

Reich is Professor of Comparative Media Studies and Director of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT. He's also the author of a new book, Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education.

"In reality, teaching through Zoom is a little bit like teaching through a keyhole, like with some awkward straining, people can kind of hear and see what's happening on the other side. But it's not really productive to meaningful conversation," he said.

Rather, although teachers have been trying to mimic the classroom learning style over video-conferencing apps, it's more like a "digital version of a backpack," where teachers and students are exchanging documents back and forth.

Moreover, Reich pointed out that because of digital redlining, many poorer regions don't have sufficient access to high-speed internet, which hampers their ability to keep up and participate in remote learning. This has become especially apparent during the pandemic, he added.

The failure of remote learning to take off also has to do with the conservatism in teaching, he said. "Teachers teach how they were taught, parents have a general expectation that schools will provide an experience that's like the experience that they have." As a result, it's not surprising that a sudden shift to online teaching is presenting challenges.

"Education is enormously complicated. It's not rocket science. It's much, much harder than rocket science."

Still, Reich said there is reason for optimism that digital technologies will improve learning. It's just going to take some time.

"When we look on a two [or] three year horizon, we say to ourselves, how are we going to make educational systems more resilient to these kinds of interruptions in the future, then I think we can give ourselves time to think through those challenges."

Disruption has been around a long time

The idea of new technologies rendering previous practices irrelevant has been around more or less since the dawn of humanity, said Paul Saffo, a futurist and adjunct professor at Stanford University in California.

Paul Saffo is Chair of Future Studies at Singularity University. (Singularity University)

And moreover, those who are responsible for the innovations rarely foresee how they ultimately will be used in society.

Saffo cited the example of Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite "in the fervent belief that it would make war too terrible to ever fight." He used the money he made from the invention to  establish the Nobel Prize as a sort of penance, Saffo added.

Nor do disruptors tend to know the political implications of their inventiveness. After Gutenburg invented the printing press in the 15th century, the Catholic Church ended up making a lot of money selling printed Papal "indulgences." In turn, this led Martin Luther to print a notice accusing the church of corruption, and launching the Protestant Reformation, Saffo explained, adding that there's an obvious analogy to the rise of social media as a political messaging platform rather than a way to simply interact with friends.

"The moment the World Wide Web arrived, and we shifted from mass media to personal media, it was pretty clear what was going to happen. And one of the early observations was some people shouldn't talk to each other. And in an age of mass media, they couldn't talk to each other. And now in an age of personal media, they can talk to each other. And that clearly would have negative effects," he said.

His research suggests that every 30 years or so, at least in modern history, a field of science turns into a technology that becomes an industry—that dramatically changes our lives, sometimes disastrously.

At the turn of the 20th century, chemistry was coming to the fore, and chemical companies like Bayer and DuPont were formed. "And no coincidence, World War One was the chemists' war," he said, referring to the use of mustard gas and other chemical warfare.

Later, physics came to the fore, driven by such scientists as Einstein, "and no coincidence that world war two was ended by physicists."

Similarly, the invention of the transistor led us onto the digital path we're on today.

Saffo believes biology is poised to be the next science to drive hard into technology and change our lives. He pointed out that it's only because of our recent knowledge and understanding of genomics, and the development of biotechnology tools, that a Covid-19 vaccine was developed so quickly.

And that revolution is just beginning, he added. "Grab your seat belt, because the next 40 years are going to be quite astonishing. And we will probably by 2050 be asking ourselves questions like, what was human?"

Written by Adam Killick. Produced by Adam Killick & Nora Young.