Do Something Different: Disruptive Technology

There are really two ways to use technology for teaching and learning. Johnson and Maddux refer to it as “Type I” and “Type II” (see here, for example). Alan November refers to it as “automation” and “infomation” (see here). Others refer to them as “sustaining” and “disruptive” (see here).

The bottom line is that Sustaining (Type I) approaches simply automate conventional practice – they support the ways teachers currently teach. Disruptive (Type II) uses are those that allow students and teachers to do things that they couldn't easily do before, or perhaps couldn't do at all. Business recognizes that although Sustaining uses of technology make work more efficient, there is only incremental improvement and benefits. It is with Disruptive uses of technology that real gains are to be made.

For example, the typewriter is Sustaining since it makes writing more efficient (it's neater, and with practice you can type faster than you can write). The word processor, however, is Disruptive because of the ease of revision. If you need to revise or edit a paper, there is little advantage to having a typewriter over having a pen and paper. In both cases, you have to start over with a new copy. With a word processor, you simply make your changes to the existing copy and print a new one. In fact, writing teachers have noticed that young writers no longer do separate, distinct drafts of a paper (1st draft, 2nd draft, etc.). Young writers now simply do a single rolling, evolving draft. They may print a new version (or submit a new electronic version in a drop box!) at certain points of their work, but each of these is not an end product of work on a specific draft, but rather a snapshot in time of the single evolving paper.

Other Sustaining examples include drill and practice software, student response systems (“clickers”), and SMARTboards. Each of these are more efficient ways of doing what teachers have done for a long time. But, since we aren't really changing what teachers have done – we aren't changing eduction – they won't mean that we will reach more students than we have in the past or that our schools will achieve anything they haven't done in the past. There's an old saying that if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten – even if you're doing it more efficiently.

Keep in mind that what matters most is how the technology is used, not which technology is used. For example, PowerPoint to create slides for a presentation is a Sustaining application, but students using PowerPoint to create multimedia documents to teach others about a topic they have been studying could be a Disruptive application. Using a graphing calculator in a math class with the traditional Algebra text is a Sustaining use, but using a graphing calculator for modeling real (messy) data and studying functions is a Disruptive use.

Other Disruptive examples of using technology in education include digital storytelling, WebQuests, or using blogs, wikis, and podcasts to build community and literacy. These uses have been shown to get students excited about learning, to learn basic skills, to use and develop higher order thinking skills, and to motivate hard to teach students. These tools have the ability to change education.

David Thornburg puts it this way:

All too often, we see teachers who are using technologies today trying to do the same kinds of things they did in the past, only more efficiently. I'm not going to go back to using a typewriter now that I use a word processor. But those are examples of what I'd call doing things differently–and the real power comes when you do different things.

Technology is expensive. I'm not sure it is worth that expense, if we are only going to use it to do what we have always done. But it could be well worth the cost if it brings productive changes in learning to our classrooms.

What is the change in learning you'd like to see in our schools?


2 thoughts on “Do Something Different: Disruptive Technology

  1. Wesley Fryer

    Thanks for this post and sharing this encouragement. I’m liking the terms “accommodating” uses versus “transformatives” uses of educational technologies now. I appreciate the back links to other names/terms for this.

    What are the most effective strategies you’ve seen educators use in the past to help peers embrace ‘type 2’ / transformative edtech uses?

  2. Pingback: Why We Must Embrace Disruptive Technology | Multiple Pathways

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