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Failure to Disrupt

Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education

Justin Reich
Harvard University Press
336 pp.
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As the pandemic forces so many school systems and learning institutions to move online, the desire to educate students well using online tools and platforms is more pressing than ever. But as Justin Reich illustrates in his new book, Failure to Disrupt, there are no easy solutions or one-size-fits-all tools that can aid in this transition, and many recent technologies that were expected to radically change schooling have instead been used in ways that perpetuate existing systems and their attendant inequalities.

The first half of the book discusses the brief histories, limited successes, and challenges of three types of large-scale technology-driven learning environments: instructor-guided, such as lectures taught through massive open online courses (MOOCs); algorithm-guided (e.g., Khan Academy); and peer-guided (e.g., the online coding community known as Scratch). Reich gives a solid accounting of the conditions needed for success with these models, the difficulties and limitations involved in adopting them in K–12 schooling, and the challenges that arise when we attempt to compare different approaches to one another. He argues that although we might think that the availability of a technology is its biggest limiter, the truth is that educational systems are simply not constructed to allow for experimentation and new ways of learning.

Reich describes himself as committed to “methodological pluralism.” He supports the use of an array of learning tools and mechanisms, although he confesses to a particular admiration for peer-guided environments. He argues, however, that the incentive structures in formal education do not encourage the more innovative and deeper learning that can blossom in these environments. If we insist on maintaining current methods of assessment and ranking, which center on individual achievement, then peer-guided instruction will remain relegated to the sidelines.

The second part of the book expands on the challenges of implementing educational technologies. Reich’s main argument here is that educational systems are inherently conservative and that change will happen, albeit slowly and incrementally, only if technology designers, teachers, and administrators work in partnership to understand the desired learning goals and the parameters that define and constrain the learning environments.

One of the most intractable pieces of the educational technology puzzle is the need to effectively conduct large-scale assessment, especially when the skills being assessed are not things that computers can do. Here, Reich cites a humorous example of an automated grading system giving high marks to an essay that begins with the technically grammatically correct sentence: “Educatee on an assassination will always be a part of mankind.”

At the end of the book, Reich offers four questions that he finds especially useful to consider when examining a new large-scale educational technology. Perhaps the most useful question is the first: “What’s new?” Despite what “edtech evangelists” might claim, new technologies often have closely related ancestors that can help predict their success, he argues. In the end, however, new technologies alone are unlikely to have a substantial impact on schooling. We must also be open to changing educational goals and expectations according to the possibilities offered by emergent technologies.

About the author

The reviewer is at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY 10708, USA.