Gates investment in Graphite is unlikely to transform education

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Aug 20, 2013

Bill Gates deserves praise for being a major contributor in addressing the persistent weaknesses in America’s education system. He’s right that America is due for a remodeling of its system to make it more student-centered and capable of helping each child achieve to his or her maximum potential. He’s also right that great teachers are the most important part of the system, aside from students.

But unfortunately, Gates’s recent multi-million dollar investment in Graphite, an online platform that allows teachers to search for the right technology for their classrooms (based on price, grade level, subject, and so forth) may not have the intended consequences. If he wants to transform the factory-based classroom system, Gates should not start with classroom teachers.

On the bright side, the chief premise of the Gates strategy for improving education is sound. In this recent interview with Education Week, he said that technology has the potential to enhance education in a big way. I completely agree. The education system faces an opportunity of far greater significance than in decades, even centuries, because the arrival of online learning means that the world now has a scalable way to individualize learning based on the needs of each child, as well as offer access to a global menu of courses and tutorials. Online learning is following the classic pattern of a disruptive innovation, which is an innovation that starts as a simple solution for those without an alternative, and then improves until it eventually transforms the sector into one that is much more simple, affordable, and accessible for everyone.

As a disruptive technology, online learning has the potential to transform the way the world learns. But successful disruption is a two-part game—the new technology is the first part, but a new organizational model is equally important. Without that organizational model part, the technology ends up getting layered on top of the existing model and when the dust settles, very little is different. This explains why America has spent over $100 billion on school computers over the past few decades, and yet the factory-style classroom persists in roughly its same form, and with roughly its same results.

One way to understand this two-part game is to think about how the legislative process works. A congresswoman might see a pressing social need and draft the perfect piece of legislation. But then the finance committee introduces amendments to keep it within budget, the Chamber of Commerce demands changes to get its support, a powerful senator from Connecticut insists on a few more changes, and in the end, the final bill that the President signs into law looks nothing like the congresswoman’s initial idea.

Similarly, a new technology might have the potential to transform a classroom to make it much more student-centered. But the teacher who chooses the technology does not have resources to buy new furniture, so she has to keep her existing classroom set-up. No one else is interested in adjusting the bell schedule, so the teacher cannot deploy the technology on a flexible schedule as recommended. The principal plans to evaluate teachers based in part on their ability to deliver whole-class instruction, so the teacher has to be sure to preserve that aspect of the traditional classroom. She adjusts the model once again. In the end, the final implementation looks very similar to the original classroom model, with the technology crammed into it.

The problem with Gates’s Graphite investment is that it connects teachers with technology in hope of bringing about a transformation. But classroom teachers are relatively powerless to transform the classroom model in which they work. They might be able to get as far as to implement a Flipped Classroom or Station Rotation, but implementing a genuinely disruptive model, such as one that we identify in this paper, is out of reach for most classroom teachers. They have little choice but to deploy technology within their existing constraints. This leads to the phenomenon of cramming.

No matter how breakthrough it is, when a technology arrives within the context of the existing classroom model, the existing model starts to shape it to conform to its dimensions.

The solution for Gates, given that he’s serious about bringing about systemic changes that truly replace the factory-based classroom with something much more student centered, is to start with school leaders, not classroom teachers. It takes a senior administrator with significant authority over budgets and staffing decisions to have the power to shepherd a disruptive project through the system and protect it from stakeholders who would morph it back into the traditional shape. Look for investments that have both parts of the equation—the disruptive technology, plus the commitment of school leaders who have the authority to protect a change in organizational model.

A good example is the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) project, which the Gates Foundation funds. In this competition for grant funding, school leaders vie for dollars to support break-the-mold school models using online learning as a technology enabler. NGLC is much more likely to transform the factory-based classroom than is Graphite, or any platform that only serves classroom teachers who are powerless to disrupt their existing model.

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.