Considering how much time and intellectual and actual capital is invested in education technology every year, it’s incomprehensible how little the entrepreneurs, investors and second-order spectators actually know about the history or daily use of technology in education.
Very few understand that education simply isn’t susceptible to disruption the way some markets may be. They miss that truth because they don’t understand that education isn’t a market or, at a minimum, they misunderstand what is being bought and sold. They likewise routinely and predictably miss that, in nearly every example, what they are building and investing in is not new but recycled, having failed to disrupt, democratize or scale education many times before.
It’s why I’ve joked for years that my dream job is reviewing education technology pitches and helping venture capital investors save their money. I’d be happy with 10% of everything I save them. Now, though, edtech investors and corporate architects and columnists can save even the money they’d spend on me.
Instead, they can just read “Failure to Disrupt,” the new book by Justin Reich, director of the teaching systems lab at MIT. Or, better yet, just read the introduction and conclusion. Those 30 or so pages may be the most important read for anyone in, or even thinking about being in, edtech.
In a few dozen pages, Reich lays out the embarrassing cycle of copied ideas, massive hype, enormous wasted funding and the unmet promises of edtech — why so many innovations and companies find only dramatically downsized and incremental uses, leaving education fundamentally not disrupted over and over again.
In one example Reich quotes Thomas Edison in a 1913 interview. “Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools,” Edison said. “It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our schools will be completely changed inside of ten years.”
More importantly, Reich underscores that the timelines and promises fade, but the ideas don’t go away. He notes the highly popular and influential 2011 TED Talk by Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy. The breakout idea may sound familiar. The talk was titled, “Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education.” Khan became a media and funding darling and, Reich writes, landed on the covers of Wired, Time and Forbes.
But after Khan opened an actual, physical school, Reich quotes Khan in an overlooked interview from 2019 telling District Administration magazine, “Now that I run a school, I see that some of the stuff is not as easy to accomplish compared to how it sounds theoretically.”
Everyone saw the hype headline. No one saw when reality hit – when, as Reich put it, “soaring vision met the complex reality of schools [and] disruption and transformation gave way to accommodation.”
It’s a pattern we’ve seen before.
Another example cited by Reich is Sebastian Thrun, one of the fathers of the MOOC – the massive, open, online course that was likewise supposed to revolutionize and democratize