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5 ways tech startups can disrupt education

As many theorists of innovation have noted, it’s difficult for mature established fields (and corporations, for that matter) to reinvent themselves. Change often comes from the outside. Once an organization has settled into a revenue stream that provides some security, it’s almost impossible for that organization to adopt approaches that harm or cannibalize that revenue stream (Blockbuster and video rentals, Microsoft and Office). Risk-taking is the domain of young companies and outsiders to a field. ReadWriteWeb presents five ways for tech companies to disrupt education. Suggestions: it should be free(mium), grassroots, 21st century learning & teaching, use open content, be open source. Can’t say I see that as being sufficient to disrupt education. Any solution that does that would need to:

1. Be based on a unit of influence that is at the control of each individual (i.e. connections not networks)
2. Scale social interactions (not only content) so large network learning occurs, but in a way that permits various group/collective sizes
3. Promote and benefit from learner autonomy, helping learners to building skills and capacity for ongoing learning
4. Use distributed, decentralized technical infrastructure (p2p not centralized)
5. Extensively use learning analytics, preferably blurring physical and virtual interactions
6. Use curriculum intelligently (linked data/semantic web) in order to provide learners with personal and adaptive paths
7. Allow information splicing so that flows can be adjusted and organized to reflect different learning and social tasks
8. Enable easy variance of contexts – or as my colleague Jon Dron states – “context switching”.
9. Offer varying levels of support and structure, under the control of the learner. If a subject is too challenging, learners can choose a structured learning path. Or, if learners prefer greater autonomy, more flexible paths can be adopted.
10. The system needs to learn from the learners (Hunch is a good example)
11. Integrate activities from various services so learners can centrally interact with data left in other services (Greplin)
12. Provide learners with the tools to connect and form learning networks with others in a course and across various disciplines (diversity exposure to ideas and connections needs to be intentional)

What are your thoughts? What type of tool, or functionality, do you think would disrupt education? What types of tools would teachers need to disrupt education?


  1. I agree — my list was too short, and your list, along with the comments on the original post, have pointed to the many things I missed. I’m particularly struck by your points here about decentralization, personalization and autonomy.

    You point to a couple of (non edtech) companies on your list — Hunch and Greplin. Will “disruption” come from “edtech” companies? from other non edtech companies? Or from educators working within and without “the system”?

    Thanks for responding to the post. I am really glad, if nothing else, it has spurred these important conversations.

    Tuesday, August 31, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Frank Carver wrote:

    A very interesting list.

    I’d probably re-phrase number 11 to remove the “centrally”, in line with your general de-centralised emphasis; perhaps replacing it with something along the lines of “compatibly”, “inclusively” or “uniformly”.

    My personal take on disruptive education is that it also needs to deliberately blur the lines between “teacher”, “student”, and (significantly) “institution”, enabling any person, group or organisation to participate in any/all of these roles.

    Thanks Audrey and George for the discussion.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 2:38 am | Permalink
  3. I would add one point that I think follows from the others:

    Learning must integrate with working/producing. Education is so impractical today precisely because it is completely removed from the work environment. Education should be an ongoing process of learning, trying, testing, refining interests, learning in more depth, further working/experimenting, and so on.

    The notion that education should occur in a void of practical experience for 18 or 22 years is insane.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 7:33 am | Permalink
  4. George, I love your work and have learned so much from it.

    I’m struggling mightily with your headline.

    There is no startup that can take on this list. This feature list would be extraordinarily challenging for the largest companies to execute, even with all of their resources.

    It’s akin to suggesting startups can disrupt the current transportation infrastructure by building flying cars (and please make them self driving).

    As I said, I’ve learned an incredible amount from your work and I love this list as theory. Startups are, by necessity, brutally practical. As a startup, my exercise is to try to come up with the smallest possible step I can feasibly take in the direction of your list.

    The more complicated I make my startup, the more money I need, the more I have to “sell” and complicated products are very hard to sell. It’s a grinding death spiral.

    Complicated pedagogy is especially dangerous(Faculty committees!)

    Disruption comes from something dangerously simple and suddenly obvious at the heart of an industry that provides significant value at a lower cost (think Craigslist).

    There may be a “simple-enough-for-a-start-up” solution that would meet all twelve of your criteria. Perhaps I suffer from a lack of imagination.

    I am sure that expanding the list of “must haves” is not going to help any start up that takes them on.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  5. alist which forms the basis of MMORPG for vocational learning as I’d like it to be developed for aged 12-22 youngsters. Anyone that likes to support this initiative may keep an eye on the project: october 14 we’re aiming for the construction of a large and multi-disciplinary consortium to scale up Skillmaster. Only € 24 million missing. Anyone got it in the back-pocket?

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  6. What I miss is the sense of urgency for disruptive innovation. If there is no need to change radically, nothing will happen. Furthermore I want to emphasize the importance of changing the ways of assessments. The way we assess learning is of great influence on the way learning takes place and education is organized.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 1:13 am | Permalink
  7. Aaron Harris wrote:

    George, I agree with Kevin here. The elements you mention could all be ways to disrupt elements of current educational structures, but I don’t think that they are all necessary to do so.

    We happen to be working on disrupting aspects of education, and we’re drawing from a set of principles similar to what you have, but I think the difference is that we’re focused on disrupting a specific aspect of educational infrastructure (in our case, one-on-one tutoring interactions). We are actually relying on the fact that “education” is not a monolithic entity, but an intertwined set of practices, theories, and structures. To disrupt them all at the same time would be a monumental task, and, I think, nearly impossible given the diversity of attacks you would have to mount. However, if you pick your battles carefully, you can leverage individual elements off the list and use those as disruptive tools.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 6:51 am | Permalink