Oct 19 2010

Use the Internet to Shake Up Classroom Learning

Online learning transforms student-centric curricula into an innovative and enriching experience.

Can the Internet do to schools what it did to the music and newspaper industries? Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen and co-authors Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson think so.

In their 2008 book (and its newly released second edition) Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, they argue that the Internet was a "disruptive innovation" for these industries because it changed how people consume content. They believe it could have a similar effect on schools – and on the "designed for standardization" teaching methodology upon which educators traditionally have relied.

Disruptive innovation's central principle is that market-leading products, services and processes eventually are displaced by innovations that are initially inferior, yet "good enough" for "nonconsumers," who eschew the dominant option due to cost or other reasons. In education, home schooling and charter schools are early examples.

The authors believe online learning is education's newest disruptive innovation and predict that by 2020, more than 50 percent of high school courses will involve some aspect of online or electronic learning. Its effect on education, they say, could be transformative.

Although there are plenty of reasons to think differently about these (and future) disruptive innovations, my interest lies in how fresh thinking can support a student-centric curriculum. At the Collegiate School, a pre-K–12 independent school in Richmond, Va., you can best see these ideas at work in the foreign language department.

Making the Foreign Familiar

In a 2008 visit to our campus, Horn showed he under­stood the challenges schools face today, earning the trust of our initially skeptical group of educators. After encouraging us to consider how we might change our approaches to better serve our students, a teacher voiced what many of us were thinking: "Sometimes, we need to disrupt ourselves."

By fall 2009, our foreign language teachers were considering how to shift the focus from the traditional academic goals of language study to an emphasis on oral proficiency. They had adopted the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) assessment developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) as its curricular objective, and a number of them had attended OPI workshops at Middlebury College in Vermont.

We had an agreed-upon curricular goal and a rationale for change, but we stumbled over how to reconcile them with the constraints of the school day and apply them in a cost-effective way. A conventional OPI assessment requires a one-to-one interview with each student and a certified evaluator – an approach that would be difficult to schedule and, at $150 per student, costly. Given these realities, we were essentially "nonconsumers" of OPI evaluations.

Thus began our effort to find an assessment that would be both cheaper and "good enough." That led us to the Standards-based Measurement of Proficiency (STAMP) test, which is based on ACTFL guidelines but is administered online. Once the test is completed, a trained evaluator working remotely scores it.

We're also exploring other ways to enrich foreign language acquisition through the use of technology. Our French II class, for example, uses a Flip Video camcorder, Skype and a Ning social network site to include a native speaker living in France as a co-teacher for some projects. For students who are off track – either ahead or behind the normal sequence of instruction – we're considering online courses that would be monitored by our teachers to help enrich or remediate a student's language study based on individual needs and interests.

We're still not sure if the STAMP test is "good enough" to serve as the cornerstone of our oral-proficiency approach. Nor do we know if these online classes will sufficiently prepare students to move to a higher level of study. But we are ready to take some calculated risks, which opens us up to a whole new world of possibilities.

Do-It-Yourself DI

In fall 2009, we asked Michael Horn to work with us to frame a school plan based on the ideas in Disrupting Class. Stakeholder groups that included teachers, students, administrators, alumni and board members gathered with Horn to brainstorm the possibilities.

To learn more about these efforts, visit sites.google.com/a/collegiate-va.org/diis/, where you'll find 10 interviews with Horn and the materials and agendas used in our stakeholder meetings. Many of the pages also contain additional readings on disruptive innovation and its effect on education.

Jamie Britto is director of technology at the Collegiate School in Richmond, Va. He is the co-author of Leadership and Technology at Independent Schools (National Association of Independent Schools, 2002).