To disrupt, or not to disrupt: Live theater and the edtech alternatives

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Jun 21, 2018

This spring, University of Arkansas researcher Jay P. Greene published a study in Educational Researcher on the benefits of students attending live theater.

An extension of his earlier research on field trips, Greene and his colleagues studied the outcomes of Arkansas-based school groups who were randomly assigned by lottery to attend live theater performances of plays like Twelfth Night and Peter and the Starcatcher, among others. Those students not selected to attend the theater either left school to watch a film version of the same play or went on no field trip at all.

Greene used this as an opportunity to explore educational outcomes beyond just test scores (although his more recent arts education research is starting to track those as well). His team compared students in each groups’ command of each play’s plot and vocabulary, along with any changes in students’ values like tolerance and empathy or social perspective taking. The results? Students who attended live theater demonstrated greater knowledge of the plays’ contents, greater tolerance, and a greater ability to recognize the emotions of others. By looking at a subset of the comparison data, Greene and his colleagues also found that watching movie versions of the same plays failed to produce these same outcomes.

The study piqued my interest because Greene’s findings—particularly those comparing benefits of movies versus live theater—are emblematic of an era of tradeoffs between live experiences and cheaper approximations of those experiences. Today, various media from movies to podcasts to virtual reality can all deliver digital versions—in some cases simulations—of live entertainment. But why would schools and consumers choose these less effective options?

Why is this happening? In a word: disruption.

Disruptive innovations—enabled by technology—offer cheaper, less centralized, more accessible products and services. These innovations don’t start off competing head-on with state-of-the-art experiences; instead they compete by unlocking access to people otherwise shut out of the market, or offering a cheaper alternative to people who are “overserved” by existing offerings. Over time they improve, luring more and more mainstream customers.

Take the phonograph. When Thomas Edison invented the first phonograph in 1877, suddenly a world of access opened up. Music previously confined to live performances could be heard from afar. Over time, growing reams of recordings of famous musicians meant that although a lucky few continued to enjoy rare, live performances in the likes of Carnegie Hall, many many more could still hear those performances from their living rooms.

Through this lens, such access to the arts is arguably a very good thing, especially for customers like cash-strapped schools. Greene’s findings, however, force schools to be honest about the unintended consequences and inevitable tradeoffs of adopting cheaper, digital experiences in lieu of live, authentic ones. They serve as a warning that important outcomes like tolerance and empathy may suffer if schools abandon the live arts and field trips entirely.

New approaches on the horizon

Greene’s study may warrant a simple fix in schools: more field trips to the theater, fewer movies or other mediocre digital substitutes. I don’t disagree. A different reading, however, begs the question of how the best of both digital and live performances could evolve over time—either to deliver on the virtues of empathy and tolerance or to risk hollowing out those outcomes vis-a-vis cheaper stand-ins. Taking to heart both Greene’s compelling findings, real cost constraints, and the rapidly expanding footprint of technology, here are three probably-not-mutually-exclusive paths that innovation in this arena could take:

(1) Technology may get better and better at approximating live experiences—and the benefits that match. Greene’s findings echo other research on empathy and technology. As researchers like Sherry Turkle have found, the rise of technology has coincided with—and she argues caused—a shocking decline in empathy. Nested in Turkle’s findings, however, is a key fact regarding the interaction of technology and empathy: the more multi-modal a virtual experience, the greater the empathy participants stand to forge. In other words, a video chat in which you can read someone’s facial cues allows for greater connection than a phone conversation or a text message.

Disruptive innovations typically start off inferior to mainstream offerings. From there, however, they improve. Today, sound quality of musical recordings has improved leaps and bounds since Edison’s landmark invention. Why? Because technology improves along the dimensions that consumers demand. If empathy is indeed an outcome that we prize, communications and digital arts technologies could continue to improve upon ‘multi-modal’ virtual connections or live broadcasts that get better and better at increasing empathy—while still offering a much lower price tag than live performances. To get there, it’s imperative that schools and other consumers of this technology demand outcomes like empathy and tolerance as a metric of quality.

(2) Schools could go online to source more affordable offline experiences.
For skeptics and naysayers of ever-improving digital substitutes, a different species of innovations could also bring more live performances within reach for schools. In consumer markets platforms like Groupmuse—essentially an Uber for in-home chamber music concerts—are cropping up. Like rideshares, these platforms effectively unlock a latent supply of local artistic talent and match that with unmet demand for small, live performances—often at a fraction of the cost of a full-fledged trip to the symphony. In the edtech market, two-sided marketplace tools like Tuscon-based CommunityShare are starting to provide educators with a similar supply of talent: local community members who can offer their skills and passion to schools. Models like this could help educators bring artists into schools to offer live performances. Although still demanding more investment than playing a recording or a movie, such matching tools can dramatically drive down the logistical and transportation costs that have, in recent years, put field trips on the chopping block.

(3) Schools could take a balanced bothand approach to digital and live arts and experiences. Today, few of us would be willing to rewind to the days before Edison’s breakthrough invention and the cascade of technological advances in sound recording and transmission since. Yet the worst version of this immense progress is that live arts die in its wake. Sometimes when we draw comparison between two modalities—like a movie and a live play or an online lesson and an in-person lesson—we start to assume that if we do one, we cannot do the other. Or worse, as long as there is a cheaper, albeit crummier alternative, cash-strapped schools must choose it. Tempting as that may be, we need stop acting like we don’t get to decide.

If we take seriously the twin needs to both ensure access and affordability and to nurture outcomes like empathy and tolerance, we don’t need to wait for the invisible hand of the market to slap us in the face when digital substitutes don’t deliver. Schools need not abandon less-good substitutes when the alternative is no arts or theater at all. At the same time, communities, citizens, and schools can still choose to prioritize and preserve the live arts and field trips—and the clear and crucial benefits they confer.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.