[This is part 1 of a two-part post; part 2 is here.]

Lately there have been a flurry of posts and associated comments discussing possible future activities that the Mozilla Foundation (and by extension the Mozilla project) might undertake in support of its overall mission and the principles of the Mozilla Manifesto. This post is an experiment in thinking about an area the Mozilla Foundation (and Mozilla in general) might consider getting involved in, one possibility out of the many that have been discussed in the various posts referenced, and one of a number of themes that might inspire particular elements of an overall strategy. As usual, these are my personal opinions only.

Educating a constituency for the open web

The particular focus of this post is education, and in particular online education. Why education? Not (just) because it’s a big important issue—there are lots of important issues in the world, and education is only one of them. There are also many nonprofit organizations, private sector entrepreneurs, and government agencies working on a host of education-related initiatives. Why should Mozilla get involved as well?

The answer is that education is evolving (or could easily evolve) in ways that are potentially very compatible with the goals of Mozilla, and there are ways in which we could get involved in education-related initiatives that are consistent with the Mozilla DNA. In effect we have an opportunity to help build a constituency for the open web and the general principles of the Mozilla Manifesto, not through traditional advocacy efforts but by helping to educate (and, in doing so, create) a new generation of web users and participants for whom such principles are second nature.

The disruptive potential of customized online education

Many people project and advocate for a future dominated by openness, a world of participation, decentralized and virtual organizations, and individual empowerment—in essence taking the principles and practices of the free software and open source movements and applying them to all aspects of society. Education is no exception, and thus there is an “open education” movement as well. The Cape Town Open Education Declaration is a good summary of the goals of the movement, not least because it addresses not just open access to educational content (e.g., as provided by the MIT OpenCourseWare project), apparently the primary initial focus of most open education proponents, but also the broader range of open and collaborative technologies that might be applied in an educational context. This is wonderful work, with lots of exciting projects under way.

However I think we also need some guidance on how, where, and when open education initiatives might be most successful, guidance that will enable us to decide how, where, and when it might make sense for Mozilla to get involved in them. My preferred framework for thinking about these sort of questions is the theory of disruptive innovation created and popularized by Clayton Christensen. Coincidentally, Christensen and his co-authors have recently provided an analysis of how disruptive innovation might occur in the context of education, in the book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation will Change the Way the World Learns.

Before going on, I’ll note that (having read all of Christensen’s books) I don’t think Disrupting Class is his finest work. It is very US-centric, relies a bit overmuch on ideas such as Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences that are unproven at best, and takes some major detours, particularly after chapter 5. I recommend just reading the first five chapters, and supplementing it with Christensen’s discussion of post-secondary professional education in chapter 5 of Seeing What’s Next. (Or you can just read the condensed version of Christensen’s and his co-authors’ thesis in the article “How Do We Transform Our Schools.”)

Nevertheless I think the core of the book is sound in applying Christensen’s theories to the topic of primary and secondary education. The key points of the book are as follows:

The problem with primary and secondary education is not lack of innovation per se, rather it’s that the primary innovation attempted is sustaining innovation within the existing system. It is primarily directed at incremental improvements in test scores and related measures important to politicians and their constituents, and occurs within a “commercial system” (including not only school systems but also textbook publishers and other creators of educational material) that is geared to providing a monolithic standardized “one size fits all” product

Disruptive innovation within the educational system will occur only at the margins, where there are needs to be filled and problems to be solved that (for whatever reason) are not being addressed by the existing system. Examples include providing a wide variety of advanced courses within school districts that cannot afford to offer such courses in the traditional way, serving student populations scattered across wide geographic areas, and serving home-schoolers and others who have opted out of the conventional educational system.

This disruptive innovation will take the form of customized instruction that is enabled by computer and networking technology but also incorporates a significant human element (for example, distance learning classes that include teacher-led instructional sessions, computer-based drill and practice, student-teacher interaction via email, student collaborative projects, and so on). Over time suppliers of customized online educational offerings will better learn what works and what doesn’t, and will use the experience gained in relatively marginal markets to develop new skills that will eventually allow them to move into more mainstream markets. (Incumbents typically don’t develop these skills because their dominance of existing markets leads them to ignore marginal and less profitable opportunities in new markets; thus Christensen refers to new market entrants as wielding the “sword of asymmetric skills” and the “shield of asymmetric motivation.”)

As a result, customized online education will show slow but steady growth in the coming years. Since it’s starting from a very small base, its overall market share will remain relatively insignificant for the next few years. However eventually the effects of continued compounded growth will cause customized online education offerings to become widespread and even dominant. Based on the data available Christensen and his co-authors estimate that although online education offerings account for only 1% of courses at present, they could grow to 25% of all courses by 2014, 50% by 2019, and 80% by 2024. (Note that they include in this total both fully online courses and courses that have a significant online component.)

A role for Mozilla?

This is all very interesting, but how does this relate to the goals of Mozilla, and to promoting the open web? The answer lies in Christensen’s ideas regarding how the commercial system around online education will evolve, based on experiences with disruptive innovations in other industries. More on that topic in part 2.

Ian Lynch - 2008-07-25 08:29

“Disruptive innovation within the educational system will occur only at the margins” Not necessarily. In the UK the exam system is a 1.5 billion dollar industry. We have a plan based on Christensen’s principles and applied to that industry starting with qualifications in Open Systems and functional skills in ICT. It can be scaled to any subject and has the potential to globalise school qualifications. If we are successful, that will not be a marginal effect because qualifications have always driven the mainstream despite what education purists will say.

hecker - 2008-07-25 11:00

@Ian Lynch: As I noted, Disrupting Class is weak on trends outside the US, and I am not familiar enough with the field to make up that lack. Thanks for the info. I agree with the point about qualifications. Where the end result is more important than the means by which it is achieved, opportunity exists to innovate with respect to the means. (This is a theme in chapter 5 of Seeing What’s Next, where Christensen discusses for-profit adult professional education.)

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