What I’ll Be Watching For at ISTE 2012

As ISTE 2012 is about to begin, I’m thinking about disruptive innovation.

I quickly dismissed the ideas in Disrupting Class when I first read it in 2010. If you haven’t yet read Clayton Christensen’s 2008 book, I highly suggest you do. Here’s a plug: those people I know that have read it do not have an ambivalent reaction – if you like a provocative read, one that will either elate or madden you, it may be right up your alley. Christensen, et. al., suggest that customized digital online learning is coming, and though it won’t initially be as good as the schooling you can get at your local public school, the efficiencies will sustain it until it eventually changes the role of teachers and schools everywhere. You know that scene in the recent Star Trek movie in which Spock is learning from the computer? It’s not far off, the authors suggest.

As I was getting ready to leave for the conference today, I stumbled upon the news via Ray Schroeder’s blog, that at the “Top 10 Tech Trends Dinner” in Silicon Valley a couple weeks back, the 2nd most important trend noted is venture capital’s move toward funding open online education. The collection of valley big shots on stage at the dinner was especially venture capital-heavy this year, and Forbes noted that their opinions “carry special weight” with interested movers and shakers. The tradition at this event is for each member of the assembled panel and audience to vote red or green on whether the identified trend is a big deal, and every panel member and most every audience member at the dinner voted green that open online education will be an even greater disruptor in education than most of us think. Soon.

“Education faces massive disruption. Bing Gordon says public schools are not very productive. At Stanford University, great professors can get 150,000 students, not 150. People who grew up digital don’t like sitting around and listening to experts talk. “Technology can enable better education” seems to be Gordon’s message. The panel is all greens in response to this. Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn) agrees: Khan Academy is an example; EdModo, K-12 too. Steve Jurvetson says his 12-year-old boy taught himself programming on the Internet. Audience votes mostly green, same with the Twitpolls.”

It seems the VC smart money is on investing in customizable digital online ed. Well, in fairness, they put it only at number two, behind “Radical Globalization of Social Commerce”. But that also means they rated it ahead of 8 other trends, including investment in Electric Cars, “Gamification of Everything”, and Biotechnology.

What will it mean over the next 5 to 10 years when all that money enters the education market? Are we who work in schools prepared to respond to hundreds of millions of dollars that will be poured into online ventures marketed directly to our students and their parents? Or dollars that will be spent lobbying school boards and legislatures in every state?

Lest you think this is all just dawning on me, yes, I know that big money is already flowing to ventures like Khan Academy, and that there are plenty of software companies producing curriculum-in-a-box. Don’t think I haven’t been paying attention. I’ve reread Disrupting Class with the clarity of recent events (roll out of Udacity, Coursera, KA, edX, etc.), and also Christensen’s original work Innovator’s Dilemma. Those close to me know that lately I’m something of a broken record constantly playing “the tsunami of disruptive innovation is coming to education!” This article about venture capital money simply presents the urgency of the situation.

So, what will I be looking for at ISTE this year?

The VC money, for one. I usually skip the vendor show in the convention center, but this year I’ll be looking carefully for the disruptors’ booths. Meanwhile, I’m going to a few online education events. I’m a member of the ISTE Online Learning Special Interest Group and will attend the group’s events, specifically, Monday’s Forum on Trends and Issues in eLearning. I’ll also attend the all-day Online Learning Institute on Wednesday. And, of course, I’ll check in to all the relevant concurrent sessions.

ISTE this year is even more of a reconnaissance mission than usual. I’ve been to enough education conferences in 20 years to know that it works best for me to go with a particular need-to-know, and I definitely have one this week. I hope that I discover the hype around disruption is overblown. Either way, I’ll share my thoughts here.

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Mike Gwaltney