04/18/2012 11:50 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2012

In a Digital Learning State of Mind

This weekend, I had an epiphany. Well, sort of. It struck me that the "bringing down the Berlin Wall" moment for the education reform movement may very well be the mainstream integration of digital learning into our culture. That's right. Digital learning could be the "innovative disruptor" so eloquently described in thought leader Clayton M. Christensen's book, The Innovator's Dilemma. In his book, Christensen shows how established, successful companies can ultimately lose by failing to abandon approaches that served them well in the past. In focusing on "disruptive technology," Christensen gives vivid examples of innovations that revolutionize various industries by going totally against the grain. The applicability of Christensen's thesis to our education system is stark. The main reason why schools can't change is they are stuck on what they have done and how they have done it in the past, with little commitment to how they can do it better in the future. Education needs an innovative disruptor. The growing online learning phenomenon is poised to be a disruptive technology in education.

I know I am not the first to say this. Many reformers believe that the digital learning movement will explode the one size fits all educational approach we are so accustomed to in this country. Through their Digital Learning Council, former Governors Jeb Bush (FL) and Bob Wise (WV), along with a handful of activists and virtual education providers, have been trumpeting technology's potential to radically change the game. However, for that to happen, the notion of digital learning has to move from the policy and education provider audience to the reality show viewing audience. That audience, particularly the millennial generation, is driving our technology social revolution, but they are being educated in the same way as their parents and grandparents. Maybe we should listen more to kids about how to best utilize digital learning in our schools.

Recently, a textbook publishing company executive related to me a story about a 13-year-old boy who was attending a failing Detroit middle school. The executive spoke to the boy's class and noticed how interested he was in her comments. When she was done, she talked to the boy, and learned that he was a budding computer genius, with no computer at home and limited access to a computer at this school. The boy was eager to show the executive a drawing he made which reflected his design for a new computer. The boy told the executive that people need a day-to-day device larger than a Blackberry, but smaller than a laptop. The executive kept the drawing and was shocked two years later when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad. That boy's drawing was virtually identical to the new iPad. As the executive told me, "My God, if we gave kids like this more access to technology, there is no telling what they could create."

Today, our kids are spending their time with hi-tech video games, on the Internet and mastering smart phone usage. Too often, their knowledge extends beyond even that of their own teachers. Digital learning is the new disruptor and a game changer for education. But, like all innovations, it must be channeled to the end-user's interest.

If we do this digital learning thing right, we won't have to recruit techies from India or China, we can recruit them from the barrio and the hood.