Disrupting Class: Chapter 3: Crammed Classroom Computers



The continuation of the beginning-of-the-chapters case reflects on how little schools have changed, despite massive technological and social shifts. Why do digital natives experience the same kind of teaching that their parents had at their age? Why has having computers in the classroom not changed the way schools work? The answer: Schools use computers as a sustaining innovation rather than a disruptive one. They try to make new technology work within their existing model, essentially competing against teachers, instead of competing against nonconsumption. The authors call this “cramming,” hence the chapter title: We cram computers into classrooms and use them within existing structures. This results in slow, expensive, and marginal improvement–students use computers to do more or less the same things students have always done. 

To illustrate this concept, the authors give several examples of similar things happening in the business world. In every case, it is shown that organizations have a hard time disrupting themselves because  “new disruptive technologies never perform as well as does the established approach in its own market” (p. 79). Companies tend to use potentially disruptive technology to sustain their existing practices. Likewise in schools, computers are used to sustain existing practices, rather than to displace them.  Teachers use computers to marginally improve research or essay-writing, or as an activity center among others. Nobody would feel good about a teacher showing a recording of another teacher during class time–it just doesn’t make sense. Competing against the current model, computers do not seem to perform as well as the traditional approach. Instead, schools must allow computers to be used as a disruptive technology, competing against nonconsumption.

As an example of what this might look like, the authors again turn to the business world. After the invention of the transistor, companies that were using vacuum tubes (the then-mainstream technology) tried to cram this new technology into their current business model. The problem was that transistors couldn’t handle the electricity required to run the big radios and televisions that vacuum tubes were powering. They spent a lot of money trying to make transistors work better at powering big devices. In the meantime, Sony used the transistor to power a hearing aid, where the lower power consumption was valued, and then went on to develop portable radios and small television sets. These portable devices were of a lower quality than the bigger vacuum tube devices, but they served a different clientele: teenagers who couldn’t afford a tabletop radio could now buy a portable one–and they could listen to music with their friends, out of earshot of their parents. Families with lower incomes could afford a small Sony TV when they couldn’t have purchased a vacuum tube set. Sony deployed the transistor technology to compete against non-consumption. Eventually, the technology improved enough to power the larger products, and vacuum tube companies disappeared.

The problem is that, in so many ways, it makes sense for companies engaged in sustaining innovation to continue their practices, but this is what dooms them in the long run. As a thought experiment about why organizations must allow disruptive technologies to compete against nonconsumption instead of cramming them into existing structures, the authors imagine what would have happened if, with the invention of the phonograph, companies had used music-recording technology to play pre-recorded music to audiences at concert halls. In this setting, the disruptive technology would have paled in comparison to the alternative. Competing against live musicians, recordings would be a miserable failure. But when they were used to allow people to listen to music in their living room, where the other option was no music at all, they were wildly successful. The message: schools should stop playing their recordings at Carnegie Hall.

The hope that inspires this chapter is that if schools will allow computers to be disruptive, they will enable students to learn in the ways their brains are wired to learned. This is accompanied by the assurance that, although most organizations fail to disrupt themselves, it is possible, if they will set up distinct units, independent from the main business, with economics appropriate for the new opportunity (p. 78). For schools, this means implementing “computer-based learning in places and for courses where there are no teachers” (p. 73). More on that in the next chapter.


I appreciated all the case studies–short, interesting, illustrative. I also think the distinction between fitting the model and fitting the market is useful. (Are we doing this because it fits our model, or because it fits the demands/possibilities of the market?) I wonder, though, to what extent this market-based thinking really applies to public education. Also, I’m still not sure I share the authors’ trust that computer-based learning is what will allow each student to learn in powerful ways. But I still find the reading interesting and compelling. Looking forward to the next chapter.


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