Education Reform: Incremental or Disruptive?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

At my college, two of the gutsiest innovations I’ve ever seen involved administrators. These happened a few years ago, but they still resonate with me. In the first case, he decided to abandon the daily hardcopy announcements that filled our wooden mailboxes. Most of them went directly from our boxes to the trashcan anyway so this was a physical relief for many. From the appointed day, the announcements would be distributed via email.

There was an uproar. “What about those of us who don’t use our email accounts?” or “What about those of us who don’t like to do our reading on computer screens?” and my favorite: “What about those of us who archive them for future reference?” Indeed, as new faculty, we were all issued a two-hole punch and a clipboard with two long metal forks (which looked like huge paper clips standing on end, with one end embedded in the board) that held the announcements via the punched holes. Most of us didn’t know what to do with these, and they quickly gathered dust in out of the way nooks.

The administrator’s response was short and sweet, giving notice that we were no longer in Kansas. He said, in essence, if you want hardcopies of the electronic announcements, then print them out.

Discussion stopped. The change was in place. The disruption* was successful.

In the second case, the administrator observed that hardcopy course schedules were gathering dust at pickup points around campus. She correctly surmised that students were simply going online to see the schedule of classes, which included the latest enrollment figures and other updates.

I asked my son, who was completing his first year at the college, if he ever used the paper schedule of classes. He looked at me, puzzled, and asked what it was. I explained, and he said no, never. I asked him where he went for course info, and he said, matter of factly, online. I asked if this was common among his friends. He said yes.

Again, there was an uproar, this time from staff who were used to riffling through paper schedules for course info. The hardcopy booklet was simply more efficient, they claimed. And they emphasized their point with the statement that they don’t always have a computer handy to check the online schedule.

But the administrator held her ground, and when the schedules were no longer printed, few if any complained. They powered on their desktops and notebooks, clicked to the “live” schedule, and moved on.

Once again, disruption successful.

Considering the real cost of producing the print media, the moves were not only practical but prescient. Information in digital form has a cost effectiveness and power quotient that paper can’t touch.

My point in sharing these episodes is to draw attention to the problem of how best to approach the kinds of changes that internet technology affords. Is it best to take incremental granny steps? Or is it best to take the leap and approach it as a disruption, a radical departure from the way things have always been done?

Obviously, my bias is for disruption. But I’m sure there must be some very good arguments for incremental.

From my perspective, the danger of incremental is the very real possibility that where we’re standing right now will determine the next step. It’s like trying to dive from the edge of a 100-foot cliff into a churning sea from a spot that would leave us shattered on rocks rather than splashing into water. For the dive to be successful, we may need to move quite a distance away, perhaps even to a different location. A step to the left or the right simply wouldn’t do.

Furthermore, incremental means a lot of baggage, baggage meant for different destinations. Do we really want to take it with us when we don’t need most or all of it for where we’re going?

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in replies to this post. Scroll down to the bottom and key in your comments. Or email them to me ( if they’re article length (approximately 500 words or more). Let’s discuss the possibility of publishing them in ETCJ as separate but related articles.

* For an excellent discussion on disruptive change, see Mary Grush’s Campus Technology interview with Josh Baron on 26 May 2010, “Josh Baron on Education Technology and Disruptive Change: A Brief Q & A with Campus Technology 2010 Keynote Josh Baron.”

6 Responses

  1. As someone who has spent the greater part of his life being a disruptor, I naturally agree. I would like to show the danger of incremental changes by a far flung analogy.

    Many years ago, both the U.S. and Canada decided it was time to join the rest of the world and go metric. The United States decided to follow an incremental path, the best example of which was our road signs. We used both miles and kilometers on the same signs, to that people would”incrementally” get the idea and switch gradually. In Canada, they went straight for kilometers–the words “miles” and MPH” were banned.

    In Canada people quickly learned what a kilometer was, and they quickly learned to think in those terms. What choice did they have? In the U.S., where we were given the choice, our eyes focused on the familiar and ignored the unfamiliar. Eventually the government realized that putting the metric equivalents on the signs was a waste of space, and we went back to 100% imperial.

    For some reason, we did not do this in beverages. Consequently, we all pretty much know what liters look like.

    Give people a choice between the familiar and the unfamiliar, and they will usually choose the familiar and ignore the unfamiliar. It is human nature.

    I am wondering about your choice of words to describe the options. In Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen uses the same terms in describing educational chance, although somewhat differently. Is this a coincidence?

  2. Education reform is great when someone has a good idea. It’s just that too often we try to reform education for the sole purpose of reforming it, without any solid ideas on how to improve the educational experience.

  3. Hi, John. Not coincidence. Design. “Disruptive” in Christensen’s sense has been around for nearly 5 years and is part of ed lingo. I quote Baron because it’s a tighter fit for my messge.

    BTW, your road sign example is a good one. For me, it all comes back to expectations. Expect the best, and you get it.

    When I first began requiring my students to create their own blogs in Blogger (for sharing drafts of papers and providing peer feedback), my colleagues wondered if students would be able to do that. I said yes, why not?

    To my knowledge, none of my colleagues have followed suit, assuming, I believe, that it’s too difficult and would require intensive F2F workshops, etc.

    I posted a few simple instructions on how to get started and asked students to go for it. One or two will email and ask me if they’ve done it right. I log in to their blogs, test their comment-posting options, and give them an OK.

    That’s it. They become bloggers in minutes, with a few easy steps. And they can now create blogs for a wide range of purposes and audiences — including blogs for other online or blended classes.

    Of course, blogs are ideal media for eportfolios. They are, in fact, portfolios of the students’ work. They become each student’s “place” in the virtual world, and students can set them up however they want and control access to specified individuals or groups such as friends, classmates, family, teachers, etc. -js

  4. Fred, that’s a good point. Change for the sake of change may be a waste of resources. Change must have a meaningful direction or goal.

    But we may be living in a different time and place where a new medium shows us tremendous possibilities and we haven’t quite figured out how to use it. For example, we can see that it provides different ways of doing things. The results may not be better, but there are other benefits or advantages that aren’t possible via the old way.

    We went to the moon, and the trip cost us billions. Many questioned the adventure. But the answer that made the difference is that the issues, problems, questions, puzzles that we encounter in the process of getting there will generate countless innovations that will have uses far beyond the limited scope of getting to the moon.

    It’s the innovative technology that generates the greatest number of questions that, in turn, lead to even more innovations that are the most valuable, And the internet is just such an innovation. I don’t think we’ve tapped into even a small fraction of the possible questions that are in the virtual dimension.

    Under these conditions, trying to set destinations in an infinite expanse that is largely unknown may be self-defeating. It may be that the virtual learning environment is a very pure form of process rather than a destination, and the name of the new game of learning is exploration rather than memorization. -js

  5. Cetainly Incremental can work, but the incremental phases have to be required by authority or demanded by the consumer. If blended is indeed a pathway to different, then a planned change over time should be both defined and obvious. Change tends to occur in education over a 20 year time span. This is one retirement at a time. Too slow today to be significant.


  6. […] Posted October 15, 2010 by hanspaagard in Hans on Tech. Leave a Comment Education Reform: Incremental or Disruptive? by Jim Shimabukuro – […]

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