(Digitally) Adapt or Die, Curmudgeon.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post wondering whether or not the economic crisis that our country was stumbling through—at that point only a few months and a few billion dollars old—was going to result in a shift towards the kinds of online education opportunities that Clayton Christensen and his pals write about in Disrupting Class.

Christensen's point (for those of you who haven't tackled his text yet) is that there is little incentive to drive change in any hierarchical organization because change threatens existing programs and personnel.  As a result, change is most effectively introduced into niches where the existing organization offers few services and little competition. 

From a school standpoint, that means we're unlikely to see real movement away from traditional instruction and towards more student-centered, technology-driven, individualized learning experiences in bread-and-butter classes like reading, math and science because there is just too much competition within the existing organization.

But in classes where schools offer few options to parents and students—-the ten students in a rural Kansas high school who want to take a class in Arabic or the 5 tweens in a Western New York middle school who are ready for statistics—-digital courses, no matter how rudimentary at this point in time, will be widely embraced because they're the only flippin' choice available. 

Over time, organizations offering digital classes in niche areas are going to become more adept at what they do.  Courses will improve in both design, sequencing and assessment.  Costs will come down and delivery will become more personalized and engaging.  Eventually, digital courses will be sophisticated enough to rival traditional classroom teaching in ALL subjects, regardless of the competition offered by the hierarchy. 

Back in October, I wasn't able to convince many people that the economy was going to have much of an impact on how we "do school," but I wonder if their minds are starting to change now.  With states facing ridiculous budget cuts, there are BOUND to be a number of services that schools can no longer provide simply because they ain't got two nickels to rub together, right?

That's where digital course providers are going to step in to fill the gap—and I'll BET that schools are going to readily accept their help this time around. 

There's not a district leader anywhere that wants to see existing educational opportunities disappear no matter how tight times get.  While they may not totally believe that digital courses are equal in rigor with the traditional classes offered by teachers in their buildings, they'll certainly be smart enough to realize that digital courses are far better than the empty gaps on their building schedules that used to be filled with interesting elective options but are now casualties of a weak economy. 

What does that mean for us classroom teacher types? 

We'd better be prepared to adapt or die!  You see, heaping scadloads of teachers were laid off in the past few months too, right?  As shocking as it has been to see a profession that typically provides the same measure of job security offered to Supreme Court Justices handing out pink slips, tons of our peers are looking for work—and they're turning to digital schools to find a paycheck. 

Don't believe me?  Then check out this article from eSchool News titled Layoffs Prompt Teachers to Move Online.  According to Senior Editor Laura Devaney, the number of applicants to online learning providers has increased by 50% in the past year—-with the majority of those new applicants having experience in brick-and-mortar schools. 

Translation:  The economic pinch will provide more opportunities for digital providers to expand course offerings, to improve the overall quality of the student learning experiences AND to nurture a line of experienced digital instructors—-who will have the upper hand over us traditional classroom teaching types when the kinds of widespread shifts to individualized electronic learning experiences that Christensen predicts are coming finally take hold in our districts. 

It's the perfect storm, y'all.  Change is coming, online classes are improving, and there's going to be an army of digitally prepared "classroom teachers" for schools and districts to draw from. 

I hate to be a "sky-is-falling" kind of guy, but if we don't start to figure out how to use digital tools to individualize learning for the children in our classrooms, I'm afraid we're going to be the unemployed curmudgeons of the 21st Century. 

All thanks to the crooks at AIG—-and our own resistance to change. 

Any of this make sense?

6 comments

  1. atxteacher

    I certainly see the balance shifting from all traditional classrooms to a broader range of choices. In 2025, perhaps we’ll be tilted towards digital. But in between students will need to develop the independent study habits needed to be successful in an all digital environment.
    Just as traditional classrooms don’t fit the needs of all learners, digital-only classrooms lack to fit all needs. I think the bottom line is about providing an array of choices to students – increasing their options to better fit the wide range of needs of various learners.
    There are benefits to increased competition, which the digital options are providing to our traditional ways.

  2. sweber

    Bill:
    I liked what you had to say about change. Change is difficult to embrace and it makes teachers and administrators uncomfortable.
    I recommend the following book to K-12 educators:
    The Six Secrets of Change: What the Best Leaders Do to Help Their Organizations Survive and Thrive (Fullan, 2008).

  3. SpecialEdHead

    I think the larger implication of e-teaching is how it opens up the market to a broader scale than the local one we’re all accustomed to. For an industry that still compensates on a two-factor spreadsheet model, dealing with national, much less international, competition will be an interesting paradigm shift.

  4. Deanna

    You would enjoy reading (or maybe you already do) the Blue Skunk Blog by Doug Johnson, especially his entries about libraries in the future- http://tinyurl.com/mzl4pf
    There are five entries in total and it is amazing to project / predict where we will be digitally in 2025. The possibilities of virtual learning are incredible!

  5. TeachMoore

    Fascinating thoughts here. Read this post just after I read an article on move to do exactly the same thing in higher ed. I wonder though as education becomes more virtual, what that will mean for the students I’ve been registering for community college classes all week. Many of them not only don’t have access to the internet (yet), they’re afraid of it. Even those who use cellphones, texting, or even Facebook seem lost when I talk to them about other educational possibilities in the digital world. I have begun to notice a disturbing pattern in which students (usually more privileged) who are eager to try online classes, and those who are afraid to even try–and these are young people. It has me thinking hard about what my role should be in helping them enter and grow comfortable in this world in which so many of their peers are already masters.

  6. Parry

    Online schools — whether K-12 or post-secondary — are enrolling increasing numbers of students every year. Will we get to a point where students learn exclusively online? I wouldn’t bet on it happening anytime soon. But could the online algebra course get to a point where it starts replacing live algebra teachers? Your post makes the probably accurate point that we may already be there, whether we like it or not.
    Parry