Learning from disruption

A few weeks ago, I was invited to talk about disruption – at the Learning Without Frontiers conference - and being a scientist by training, I thought I ought to look up what the dictionary meaning of disruption is. This is what I found:

•     break: an act of delaying or interrupting the continuity;
•     disturbance: a disorderly outburst or tumult;
•     dislocation: an event that results in a displacement or discontinuity
•     the act of causing disorder

There’s definitely something about the loss of continuity, and more than a suggestion of disorder – it’s obviously not an easy process to be the subject of!  Since everyone seems to be talking about it these days, I wondered if we are we sure we recognise it when it happens, and whether that implied discomfort makes us unwilling to be “disrupted”?

I started by thinking about examples of levels of “change”.  When we go out for a drink at a bar, what is it we drink from?  It is most commonly called a glass.  Almost unique among artefacts, although it has a purpose, it is named after the material it is most commonly made from.  But why is this simple drinking vessel made from glass?  Can we assume that its properties make it ideal for such a use?  It has a high modulus, which means it keeps its shape when handled.  It has a high melting point, which means it doesn’t change its shape when heated to higher temperatures.  It does not dissolve in water and detergent, which means it can be easily cleaned.  It is transparent, which means that the drinker can see what he or she is drinking. But it has a fatal flaw in common use.  Glass is a brittle material and therefore shatters when hit or dropped.  The shards are sharp and can cut flesh.  On a Saturday night, this can lead to an alternative use for a glass – that of weapon. 

So, why do we make common drinking vessels out of glass?  The answer is that the Romans did, and we haven’t got around to changing.  There are plenty of alternative materials.  Before glass became a sign of status in Rome, drinking vessels had been made out of wood or various metals.  Since then, a variety of polymers have been used to make glasses, but we stubbornly hold on to the Roman way of doing things.  Even the most sophisticated and educated person will probably tell you that beer just doesn’t taste right when drunk from a plastic glass, although there is no evidence for contamination.  They may even tell you that the weight of the glass is important to the drinking process! 

Although we talk about change being good, and innovation leading to economic growth, there are times when we cling to the old ways of doing things for no really good reason.  There is also another lesson for us all in here.  Unless you go back to analysing what the purpose and requirements of the “glass” is, you don’t question whether the current way of doing things is right!

But enough of continuity – what about change?

We are used to the idea and the reality of a car.  It is a vehicle for personal transport.  For over 100 years, it has been based on an internal combustion engine, a mechanical gearbox and transmission to convert the output of the engine into usable power, usually has 4 wheels and it accommodates anything from 2 to 8 (ish) people.  It has the power system we are used to because its major development coincided with the birth of the oil industry. In the early days of cars, there were steam powered ones and electric powered ones.  They lost out in the race to become accessible. 

Now with the growing understanding of the finite nature of the oil reserves we use to power our cars, and the impact of climate change and the role of carbon dioxide in causing that climate change, government regulation and consumer choice is moving towards a different form of personal transport. There are already cars on the road with hybrid petrol-electric drive systems, and although it is not fully clear the exact format we will use in the future, it is becoming apparent that the drive train will most likely be electric, with electric motors driving the wheels and the power coming from batteries, with either fuel cells or radically different internal combustion engines providing the basic power on the move, or the batteries being charged overnight off the electricity grid. Initially the automotive industry did not appear to be keen on this change.  It disturbed their existing world and required them to do very new things.  But they saw the opportunity as well as the challenge and – over a very few years – we now have the situation where no established automotive company doesn’t have plans for some kind of electric car, and there are many new, fast-moving, entrants to the field making new offers to the consumer.

But not everything will change.  Although there has been – and will continue to be – major upheavals in the automotive industry, they will still make cars.  We know what cars are and how to use them.  They have an advantage in that they can predict the market fairly well.  There are about 35 million cars in the UK at the moment, and from the 2 million or so we buy a year it seems unlikely that we are going to give them up soon – so car manufacturers can estimate the size of the future market and probably even sub-segment it with some degree of certainty.  The market evolves moderately slowly – we mostly change our cars in timescales of 5 or so years and most cars have several owners before they are scrapped.

The market is therefore quite predictable and the basic product is basically the same.  Should we really count this as disruption?  Unless the changes radically alter how we travel, can we really claim that the automotive market has been disrupted?  To take our learning from the “glass” analysis, do we know what we want from personal transport – and is the current “car” the right way to deliver that requirement.

However, there have been other changes recently that have – for most people – turned things upside down!

These are mostly to do with the birth and rapid growth of the Internet.  The bulk of this change has happened over the last 10 years and it is interesting to note how many things we take for granted today were not around 10 years ago!  The ability to access all forms of information almost instantly has led to massive changes in service industries such as banking and retail. 

In retail, the rise to dominance of companies like Amazon, which started selling books and CDs and now seems to sell just about everything, has been little short of phenomenal. Not only have they come to dominate the route to market for books, CDs, electrical goods and so on, they have also started using their records of what we buy to suggest extra things we might like.  Food retailers, both bulk and speciality, are also taking advantage of the fact that they can monitor our in-store use with loyalty cards, track what we buy on-line and monitor our increasingly digitised lifestyles and offer home delivery of the things we forgot to buy to make life easier for us.

In banking, it is not just what we see that has been transformed – although the ability to take money out of ATMs all over the world, or to be able to use credit cards both at home and abroad is transformative – the back offices of banks and all forms of financial institution increasingly rely on computers to execute and sometimes even suggest transactions.  Apparently, we now regularly have “mini-crashes” of stock exchanges around the world as we race to make buying and selling stocks and shares a semi-automatic, algorithm driven process!

The Internet is truly ubiquitous.  And although not every individual person is connected, it is increasingly difficult to do business without some direct or indirect involvement of the Internet.  It goes through all we do and, after the initial and fairly pedestrian use to replicate “real world” processes, we are starting to see the development of products and services which could not have been imagined without our experience of being globally connected.

So, has the advent of the Internet caused disruption?  I would say it has started, but suggest that the process hasn’t finished yet.  That, in turn, raises the question about what level of change constitutes “disruption”?

This brings us to the question of whether there is any possibility for disruptive innovation in education.  As a complete amateur in the field, although a product of the UK educational system of – it has to be admitted – some decades ago, being invited to talk at the conference meant I found myself questioning what education is and whether its definition has been evolved by circumstances – possibly without us realising. 

To borrow from the first two examples, what is the purpose and requirement of education? Is education the accumulation of knowledge or the development of skills to find and use the knowledge?  When I was young, I read books and listened in (first) lessons and (then) lectures to people telling me “things” as I tried to remember the content and understand the context of those “things”.  I was implicitly aware that my goal was primarily about learning “things”.  As I progressed through the system, I learned that the trick was not to know everything, but to know where it was available and how it all fitted together.  It was both more useful and (truthfully) easier to try to work out the big picture and be able to find the detail if I needed it.  I now have children who take it for granted that (if connected to the Internet) they can access any fact or opinion with minimal delay if they ask the right question.  They have a network of friends around the world that they are in constant contact with.  Everything is pretty much immediate and easy.  And yet the schooling they received was more or less identical to what I got. Their time at university, with lectures, practicals and examinations, sounds to be an almost carbon copy of my days – which were a long time ago.  Have we really not recognised the new ways of doing things and built it into the educational system?

That, as I said, raises the question “what is the purpose of education?”  Is it for the benefit of the individual?  If it is to allow the recipient to prosper in the world, then surely, we would be more competitive about acquiring education – with everyone trying to gain knowledge that no-one else has to take advantage of.  Surely that would lead to more use of private education than we have in this country?

Presumably, at some point, education in early man was very much a tailored process – each child having the experience of their parents and tribal elders passed on to them as they neared the opportunity to use it.  Perhaps they learned the context of that knowledge by listening to the stories of the tribes achievements around the campfire – the stories being acted out as well as told?  Their use of the experience passed to them would reinforce its usefulness and cement it as part of their own knowledge.  Like many human activities, sharing evolved as a means to efficiently deliver this learning process to the growing population of children.  Standard processes grew up and were adopted because they seemed to work. 

At some point we started to apply a “production line” mentality to education – standardising what every child got in content and format.  What is striking is that pictures of classrooms the world over look the same – the children in ranks in front of the teacher. But there are anomalies of thinking.  Today we seem to value smaller class sizes – so that the children can get more time with the teacher?  Is there not value in children learning about their world alongside their peer group – would they not benefit from sharing their experiences with more than one “teacher”?

So, why is the Technology Strategy Board interested in this area?  Our role is to support UK based companies to take advantage of changes in markets.  Technology often gives people the opportunity to change how they do things.  Once it is adopted, that the same technology (or variants of it) then enable the change to be imbedded in the market.  We are interested in whether education (as a market) is going to change – and how radical that change might be!

We don’t know what the answer is, but what we have found over the last few years is that it is always worth asking the basic questions, and recognising the inertia that keeps us doing the same things we have always done because it is comfortable.  Is the way we currently do it really the best way to teach children in this modern age, or has education become just like the things we drink from?


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:06

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  • Noel Moriarty|11/04/12 at 4:01 PM

    You make many very fair points, David, and if I may add to the thought process, two points:
    - we have barely even started to scratch the surface in terms of the changes that technology could bring about.
    - 'change' will always have a disruptive effect, and in the long run, unless it is disruptive, we cannot achieve the progress that it promises anyway - the greatest changes for could come about from the most disruptive of technologies, the trick we all have to embrace is to treat it positively and adapt.

    In that sense, treating the change as 'disruptive' - and even the very word chosen to describe it brings negative connotations - is not really the way, but we all need to find the ways to adapt to what it can bring. Unless we do, then the promise of technology for assisted living, advances in healthcare, smart living etc will always be that bit constrained by a touch of narrow vision. A minor example: I deal a bit at the moment in digital media - helping people deal with the impact of digital distribution models on the books world for example, where one sees plenty of 'rabbits in the headlights' in face of the threat of Amazon that the internet has brought. Yet look at the example of Digital on the world of news media over the last 15 years. At the outset, all that anyone could see was the 'threat' brought about, the impact on editorial content etc as the model shifted away from centralised control of content and distribution. Yet now, Social Media - that very channel of disruption through User Generated Content - have now been embraced as part of the very model they disrupted, in the shape of being a news-gathering technique and not a threat at all.

    In my opinion, the 'internet of things' offers even more than we can possibly imagine - who would have realised the impact that the internet would have had on our lives over the last 10 to 15 years anyway? So, we ain't seen nothin' yet, and it will take some open minds and a touch of vision to help it all along the way

    Sayee Raghunathan|09/03/11 at 7:45 AM


    Nice post. I would like to add on your bit on education; I remember somone once telling me that education is all that is remembered after all that is learnt is forgotted. Any disruption in education systems will therefore have to be a change in the framework, ie the system itself. Currently education frameworks are geared towards ensuring majority (>60-70%) of each class is able to learn (and hopefully apply what is learnt) what is being taught. This means that the framework is essentially geared to impart knowledge or learning to the bulk of the students. A real disruption will therefore be when the frameworks are flexible enough for everyone to learn within their own pace; maybe the internet and learning management systems could be one answer and bring about this disruption.

    My initial thoughts on reading your blog.


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