Posted by: crudbasher | May 28, 2013

A Response To Audrey Watter’s Myth of Disruptive Innovation Post

I think that Audrey Watter’s Hack Education blog is one of the best education technology blogs out there. She is very prolific and is doing it because she wants to (like me). I wish I was as good a writer. That being said though, I think she is wrong about a recent blog post she wrote. Here’s why.

The post is entitled The Myth and the Millennialism of Disruptive Innovation. I invite you to go read the whole thing. I’m going to take some of that post and provide a counter argument here.

I’ve read her post several times now so I think I can correctly summarize her argument. She is claiming that people who say that disruptive innovation is going to inevitably change education are as wrong as the people who claimed that Y2K was going to end the world. Disruptive Innovation is a term coined by Harvard Business professor Clayton Christensen in his 1997 book the Innovator’s Dilemma. I haven’t read it yet but I did read another of his books called Disrupting Class (see my review here). A disruptive innovation is a technology that enables a new business model that then destroys a competitor’s business model. This happens by a new innovation being applied to the fringe of an existing market. Gradually it eats into the market of the company until it eventually takes away the core market too. An example of this is Japanese small cars in the 1970s were only a small market but have gradually eaten deeply into the American car makers core markets.

In order for this to happen several conditions need to be present.

  1. Customers need to be willing to switch to a competitor.
  2. The market must have unserved or underserved customers.
  3. The market must be free to a certain extent. It is hard to disrupt a government sanctioned monopoly.
  4. The new business model must be one that the existing market leaders can’t or won’t adopt into their own business model.

Ok so with that ground work out of the way, let’s look at Audrey’s argument.

Disruptive Innovation as Myth

Audrey has a MA in Folklore so it makes sense that a myth analogy comes to her mind. She correctly notices that many, many new products try to push themselves as a disruptive innovation. This is marketing as myth. It seems that every company wants to make their product more amazing that it actually is. Apple is a classic offender here because all of their products are “magical”. Still, a theory misappropriated does not invalidate the theory itself.

She continues for quite a while about how people believe in the end of the world and tries to tie that into the belief in disruptive innovation. I would like to point out that most of the people who believe in disruptive innovation are the ones who would benefit from it the most. It’s harder to believe in it when things are going great…


Audrey then has a section where she points out that since 1997 when the original book was published, many of the predictions have not come true. She relates how Mr. Christensen has since refined his theory to try to account for this.

Not so fast, the organization now says. Hybrid innovation. “Blended learning.” A little bit online and a little bit offline. And while middle- and high schools (and colleges, although that isn’t the subject of this latest white paper) might offer opportunities for “rampant non-consumption,” — that is, classically, an opportunity for “disruption” — “the future of elementary schools at this point is likely to be largely, but not exclusively, a sustaining innovation story for the classroom.” Computer hardware and software and Internet-access in the classroom, as those of us who’ve been thinking about education technology for decades now keep saying, won’t necessarily change “everything.” (Go figure.)

What is slowing innovation in school down is the fact it is a government program. If the US post office was a private business it would have gone out of business years ago. Instead it just gets more money. The cost of public education has gone up tremendously in the last 30 years and yet the cry is always for more money. Spending more money on education does not mean kids will learn more.

Ok so let’s go back to the idea that disruptive innovation will destroy public education. Here are the four conditions I see for disruptive innovation to take hold.

1. Customers need to be willing to switch to a competitor.

I believe most parents want their kids to do well. If they had a chance to switch their kids to a way of learning that clearly demonstrated better outcomes than public school, I bet they would. Especially if it was cheaper. Right now the main competitors are homeschooling and private schools. For homeschooling to really blossom you would need a parent not working for a long time. Oh wait… we are in the longest stretch of high unemployment since the Great Depression and it isn’t getting better. As students leave, schools will close. (see Hack Education)

2. The market must have unserved or underserved customers.

“only 37 percent of respondents said public schools provided an ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ education.”source

People aren’t satisfied with their public schools and if you believe as I do that learning is lifelong then there is actually a huge pool of underserved customers. Radically different forms of learning will get their start in continuing education and the developing world most likely.

3. The market must be free to a certain extent. It is hard to disrupt a government sanctioned monopoly.

The government education system will defend itself from competitors but as long as you are just nibbling around the edges they don’t care too much. Of course sometimes they do. One of President Obama’s first acts when he was elected was to kill a small voucher program in Washington DC.

4. The new business model must be one that the existing market leaders can’t or won’t adopt into their own business model.

So what happens if somebody demonstrates a new way of learning that can allow each child to reach their own potential? Of course that supposes such a method exists but does anyone want to make an argument that the current method of mass public education is the best way to learn?

When a new way of learning comes out can public education adopt it? I doubt it because of one simple fact: the main purpose of public education is not to educate children. It is to sustain the public education system. This is not to take away from the many dedicated teachers who strive to reach kids every day. I feel bad for them because their hands become more tied with each new federal program. (see What If Schools Don’t Change and The Guidance System Of Education)

Agitating for End Times

Let’s finish up with the last section of Audrey’s blog post. Up to now she has been putting forth an argument against the inevitability of disruptive innovation. The fun thing about predicting the future is it takes a while to know if you are right or not. She could be right, time will tell. (Of course will we recognize disruptive innovation if/when it happens?)

I wish however she had ended with the previous section because in this last part she talks about how Mr. Christensen founded his own institution based on his theory and they *gasp* make money!!

You see when you are trying to change minds about an idea you can either go after the message or the messenger. Refuting the message takes time to lay out an argument, which Audrey did a good job of. I disagree with her argument but she at least took the time to make one.

This last section then puzzles me. The tone she uses says to me she clearly doesn’t see Mr. Christensen as having motives beyond making money. When you accuse somebody of false motives, you don’t have to refute their position at all because anything they say is automatically untrustworthy. In my opinion it weakens her article because she is saying essentially “this point of view is wrong, and here’s why, but that doesn’t matter because they are deceitful anyway”. This is intellectually lazy, which Audrey clearly is not. Not only that but it cuts off all further debate on the issue and we clearly need more debate about education, not less.

I hope my argument at least will provoke some thought, as a good debate should. I don’t believe I can be accused of having a false motive here as I have nothing to gain. Indeed, I don’t offer my credentials nor even my real name prominently on this site as I want my ideas to stand on their own.

If Audrey Watters does read this, I hope it helps further her thinking on this matter and I wholeheartedly encourage her to keep up the good work!



  1. Very interesting discussion. Disruption is certainly possible, but unlike you I think that much of the federal push in education (RTTT, charter-promotion, etc.) is aimed at enabling disruption, not hindering it. Also, a potential problem with the kind of disruption you seem to be interested in is that I suspect that the poorest and most vulnerable kids might get end up in even worse schools than they have already. Meanwhile the children of the elite will stick to their very UNdisrupted schools. Because the flip side of our era’s emphasis on disruptive innovation is its emphasis on artisanal traditionalism, and that is the side that the elites are choosing for their kids. RIch kids still go to good traditional schools. So while Watters is right that disruption doesn’t come naturally to our education system, you are right that things are changing–but I’m not sure that’s a good thing!

    • Hi EC,

      I don’t agree with most of the Obama administration’s policies however I have been fairly impressed with what they are saying about public education. The problem is I don’t think a centralized approach is a good way of promoting evolutionary change. A free market would respond to outside forces and make a better product but the forces that shape public education are very different.

      I completely agree with you that elites will always come out on top. The president doesn’t send his kids to public school after all. That’s why I am looking at technologies that will radically improve educational outcomes and radically decrease the cost. I don’t know what the overall shape of education will be in 10-20 years but I hope it’s different and improved for all kids.

      Oh and I read your blog post. Nice work however I have a slight quible. You said that the disruptive product is “crappier”. I would have used the term “cheaper but good enough”. 🙂

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Another brief note: I followed your link to the gallup poll you cited as evidence that Americans “aren’t satisfied with their public schools” and found that you are misrepresenting the data somewhat. The poll found that, on the contrary, 75% of Americans are satisfied with their kids’ schools!

    • EC, please note the first paragraph. “More than half of Americans are dissatisfied with American public education, but are more inclined to rate their own children’s schools highly, according to a recent Gallup survey.” I used an exact quote from the article to support my premise so to say I misrepresented it is maybe a little harsh. I didn’t tell the rest of the poll true but I was interested in what people though of the system itself rather than their own local schools.

      I wonder if this is the same sort of situation where people think congress is awful (8% approval numbers) but think their own congress person is ok? We see that in polling all the time too. Perceptions are a funny thing. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Well, sorry to seem harsh. I’m a bit confused. You didn’t use an “exact quote.” You said that Americans “aren’t satisfied with their public schools.” That is pretty different from saying that they “are dissatisfied with American public education.” Maybe this is a matter of interpretation, but you did not quote exactly!

        Anyway, I hope you’re right about the wonders of technology!

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