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The appointment of a new education secretary has got me wondering about education, tech and disruption.

Meet Jordan: 15 years old, plays sport, loves gadgets, cheeky to his mother and a great disruptor.
You may not know it yet, but Jordan has already disrupted education. Most of the lessons at school don’t feel relevant to him, something his grades are starting to reflect. But in his own time Jordan is coding, checking forums and reading up on effective UX design.

Why has disruption become a good thing?

I like change, I love new things: the shinier the better (except the current gen of smart watches, you can read that rant here) but I don’t like disruption.

My old mate Wikipedia tells me that disruption is an event which causes an unplanned and negative deviation. Now, I know that words and phrases can change their meaning over time but “disrupt” still has a negative connotation. (On a side note, the fact I turned to Wikipedia rather than an Oxford dictionary is pretty telling, as disruptions go, but I digress…)

I want to see innovation, invention, creation. I want the world to change for the better. For me the motivation is “how can we create value, and make things better?” – not to destroy an incumbent.

And education is something every parent wants to improve. We want our kids to have the skills and encouragement to enter adulthood with confidence. We also want them to have an amazing time, not slump over desks bored out of their skulls. That’s why I like how many start-up products are being used.

Let’s not disrupt education

What I love about what so many start-ups and social enterprises are doing in education is that they’re not necessarily disrupting the national curriculum. They’re plugging-in. They’re keeping up with what energetic kids like Jordan are interested in and giving them challenges they want to solve.

Coding in the classroom may be an obvious example, but hey it’s a biggie.

The Year of Code has a long list of initiatives and ideas, from the volunteers at Code Club for 9-11 year olds and the rapid growth of Codecademy, to safe spaces for young coders to connect like Young Rewired State and cheap tech that lowers the barriers (Raspberry Pi and Kano). All of these help kids get a head start on programming and stay interested outside of the school grounds.

OK, so maybe I don’t like upsetting the apple cart. But I should consider the bigger question: does the apple cart still work?

Scratch that, let’s totally disrupt education

A couple of bloggers on the Clayton Christensen Institute site disagree with education’s status quo. They argue that disruptive innovation is precisely what old-school education bodies need. Where’s the good in young kids building up solid coding expertise in their free time then sitting through mandatory “Hello world!” lessons with classmates next year, and being graded on that?

Thomas Arnett believes “disruptive innovation” (explored in Christensen and Raynor’s seminal ‘The Innovator’s Solution’) powered by tech could transform education as massively as it has 21st Century business.

What if, Arnett wondered, the education system:

  • Scaled-up the best teaching so it was accessible to everyone, not just the few?
  • Personalised learning specifically to each student?
  • Sidestepped the politics that shackle education to traditional ideas of ‘school’?

In a follow up article, Clayton Christensen Institute co-founder Michael B. Horn added that online learning could also “undo the factory-model assumptions that dominate our schools and treat uniformly students in the process.” Having wrestled with the pros and cons of various school league tables and Ofsted reports, I can kind of see their point.

Is tech really the key to disruption?

What’s exciting here though is that through disruption, we have the opportunity to make a quality higher education fundamentally affordable and thereby allow many more people access to its benefits.
Michael B. Horn

Rising UK start-up star Gojimbo has steadily grown from GCSE revision app to an all-in-one mobile learning platform, with academic content balanced by peer and teacher communities. It’s no great leap to imagine such a platform evolving in the future to provide scaled-up teaching and personal syllabuses too. And I’m comfortable with this – tech is enabling gradual progress here, not revolutionary school-closing disruption.

Maybe I’m too old for disruption

Perhaps I am reading too deeply into disruption, just like “big data”, and “cloud” before it, disruption has become a buzzword, used because that’s what all the cool kids are doing. Or perhaps, now that I am no longer eligible for the “30 under 30” lists, this has just been the rambling of a grumpy old man who is too set in his ways.

For more grumbling, rambling and the odd cheery story, follow me on Twitter @jonathanroomer