Justin Reich is an Educational Technology researcher from MIT who has been working in the field since the mid 2000’s, when edtech was going to completely revolutionize our future. He sees a number of problems with the ebbouliant EdTech startup founders who continue to claim that their products will make the education of tomorrow far different from the education that we have now, and it is difficult to sum up why he thinks it won’t work, but one way to unpeel it is to look at a phrase he coined as Reich’s Law: Those who do, do more, and those who do more do better.

It’s far from axiomatic, and really it’s mostly a joke, but it is also an idea that returns regularly in Justin Reich’s book.The point is that students and teachers who are bought into learning with technology already are capable of using new EdTech products to push themselves or their classrooms a little further, but those that are disengaged or intimidated by technology don’t find themselves motivated by the thought of more online zoom sessions or more kahoot games. In that sense, this book is both a description of the main categories that EdTech products fall into and an exploration for why those categories rarely create change that makes for a completely different world.

As someone who writes about technology in education, it has always been a given to me that technology can transform education as it has so many other industries. But Justin Reich, an MIT researcher who has a long history in edtech, has a lot to say on why education technology is still struggling to improve the way we teach and learn.

Reich mainly looks at three areas of Learning at Scale, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Adaptive Tutors, and Peer- Guided Learning Communities. He also takes a look at how these teaching methods are being tested. He then looks at four reasons that these breakthroughs mostly failed.

MOOCs were highly touted about 20 years ago when many institutions in higher ed were putting courses online. MOOCs were supposed to level the field between the haves and have nots. The problem was that unmotivated or inexperienced students are very hard to teach in a large scale environment. There is a reason small classrooms are recommended. Also grading is very hard at a large scale for classes that test by essays or word problems. MOOCs worked best with advanced students or professionals who already understand the subject to a large extent.

Next Rich looks at Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) and intelligent tutors and comes to the conclusion that online education and testing at this stage is only useful for early math education. He does discuss the testing that has been done and the difficulty of including any new methods into the present elementary education bureaucracy in the United States. I think this is a very limited viewpoint. He doesn’t look at other countries and he completely ignores some of the better educational games. There are sure to be more and deeper studies looking at virtual education in the covid era so we will better understand what works and why.

Peer-Guided Learning at Scale looks at Networked Learning Communities, a subject that especially interested me. There seemed to be a number of challenges here. As Reich says “One of the signature design challenges of peer-guided learning environments is to figure out how to make them more accessible to novices without turning them into instructor-led learning environments”

The biggest criticism that the book levels at the EdTech industry is that it may have created tools for people who already do, but it has done little to change the motivation or engagements of students who were already struggling. Something that became incredibly apparent in the pandemic was how much effort it required even the good students to pay attention to a zoom class, and students who don’t already possess that level of engagement or external support struggled more than anyone. While the students who did more in class were still often able to do it at home, the students who struggled to do it in class often lost even that when they were studying from home.

It is not in spite of, but because the book only finds a very small number of successes, that we would recommend Failure to Disrupt to anyone involved in edtech. Being surrounded by positive messages about education technology is infections and those of us involved in edtech are evangalistic about the areas it could fix but it is key to look at where the existing system is really working before we try to disrupt everything.

One of the more compelling things that Reich included was a bookclub he held in fall 2020 (for those of us who want to do more) and put the discussions online. The other professionals who enter the discussion in podcast and in the comments make it a very useful addition.(https://failuretodisrupt.com/virtualbookclub/).

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