12/15/2009 02:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Will Tech Take Over?

Betting on technology to change teaching wagers against history, but that's what the authors of Disrupting Class do, and persuasively. Every technological tweak, from student workbooks in the 1920s to television in the 1950s, was accompanied by the prediction that teaching would change. All these predictions proved wrong. But the Internet is different, and so are the times we live in.

Lead author Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School and a student of change, along with Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson, assert that the Internet is an institutionally disruptive technology. By extending the adoption curve of on-line instruction, they predict a flip in instruction beginning only four years from now and "in the subsequent six years technology's market share will grow from five to 50 percent." Thus, they predict that by 2019 more than half of high school classes will be taught by individualized, Internet-linked computer software rather than live lecturing teachers with batch processing instructional packages. "Given how long some have been in the trenches of school reform, it will be a breathtaking flip," the authors say. If they are only half right, their prediction is still a big deal.

The pattern of online course taking supports the prediction of rapid change. In elementary and secondary education, more than 1 million students took classes on line in 2006-2007, a 47 percent increase from a year earlier. In higher education, the number was nearly 3.5 million in 2006, up 10 percent from the previous year and reaching nearly 20 percent of all U.S. higher education students. Online enrollments are growing at five times the overall growth rate.

At its core, though, Disrupting Class is not so much about computer technology as it is about departing from a century-old batch-process method of teaching. For the first time, public education has within its reach the capacity to individualize and tailor instruction to student interests and learning styles.

For the last century, public education has been built around an orderly grouping of students and their somewhat forced march from preschool to high school. School systems adopted this model of teaching and learning because it was the most efficient knowledge manufacturing system available. The early 20th Century Progressives looked over their shoulders at Henry Ford and the remarkable advances in manufacturing productivity, and said, in effect, "we'll take some of that."

This model has persisted simply because no one could figure out a system that was cheaper and more effective than putting a teacher in front of thirty kids (unless its was adding a few more kids; hence, the continuing labor relations battles over class size).

Now, we are rapidly gaining the capacity to individualize instruction. This is a good thing. We know that the best curriculum works for about 60 percent of the students, and if you are unlucky enough to be more than a standard deviation different than other learners, you have serious problems.

Most of the increases in education funding over the last three decades have been devoted to trying to improve education outcomes from these students. In Los Angeles Unified, spending controlled for inflation decreased by nearly 19 percent in regular classrooms between 1987-1996 (the years that data were available for study). Spending for special education increased by nearly 51 percent.

The new teaching technology gains acceptance not by competing against regular schools and classrooms but by competing against parts of education where resistance is lower: tutoring, Advanced Placement classes in rural and hard to staff schools, home schooling, and supplemental education. Virtual academies now operate in 25 states. The largest in Florida now has more than 45,000 students.

To date, most technology use in K-12 education has been bolted on to existing classes. But complete packages of on-line instruction are rapidly multiplying and becoming more sophisticated. They are also becoming more attractive to schools as their unit costs decrease. In times of tight budgets, technology driven teaching will become even more attractive.

Each state, district, and teacher union will have to decide how to position themselves around the use of technology. My guess is that charter schools will adopt new teaching technologies relatively quickly. Historically, blocking technology is a loser, and the road is littered with the corpses of once proud and powerful craft unions that tried. The better path is to follow medicine and attach the expansion of teaching technology to the job title "teacher."

The practical question is how to invest in the research and development infrastructure that would allow teachers to build better and more individualized learning experiences for students. Because states, school districts and teacher unions have so fully invested themselves in building 20th Century brick and mortar schools with century-old models of learning inside, there are few left over resources for using technology to reinvent teaching.

For example, Los Angeles Unified, enabled by successful construction bond issues, is building about $20 billion in new and replacement schools, a project that rivals Boston's Big Dig as the largest public works effort in history. Meanwhile, its capacity to actively change how teaching and learning take place has been severely constrained by cutbacks in its operating budgets, which rely on different sources of funds than building construction. As it stands now, we are spending a fortune on inherently limited modes of learning and teaching.

The open question is whether state, district, or teacher unions will seize the opportunities inherent in federal initiatives, such as Secretary Arne Duncan's "Race to the Top," to build a new teaching infrastructure or whether by default that effort will be left to private software developers and charter school management companies.