Last week, Lindsey Burke authored an interesting piece for redefinED titled, “Do pandemic pods represent disruptive technology?” A different question could be: Do pods represent the incremental improvement to digital learning that will bring that type of learning into disruptive territory?
Typically, a disruptive technology starts as what is perceived to be an inferior but more accessible product or service “competing against non-consumption.” A classic example from the early computer era featured mainframe computers as the dominant technology and personal computers as the disruptive technology. Early personal computers weren’t great, but access to mainframe computers was a very scarce commodity. Thus, personal computers were better than nothing.
The key comes with the flip: Personal computers got better over time, and at some point, people realized they were just as good or better than mainframe access. Personal computers displaced mainframe computers as the dominant technology.
Rather than thinking of pandemic pods as a disruptive technology, they may fit in the disruption model better as the incremental improvement to digital learning. Digital learning, in other words, may have been advancing in a “pre-flip” disruptive technology until innovators improved it sufficiently for many people to see it as a better form of learning.
Digital learning often competes against non-consumption by serving students who, for a variety of reasons, would otherwise drop out of school. It serves other student niches as well. Most people, however, view education as an inherently social activity – with classmates, group activities and in-person instruction. Pods can scratch all these itches in ways that purely digital learning will struggle to do.
It is too early to know much about the combination of digital learning and pods in terms of academic outcomes. It is obvious walking in the door of a school taking advantage of both that the teachers and students are having fun, a quality often lacking in large, impersonal schools. As I discussed in a recent column, I had the opportunity to observe at group of students engaged in 3-D printing at a Prenda micro-school on the Apache Nation in San Carlos, Arizona. The thought that would not leave my head was, “Scout troop meets Sal Khan = fun school model!”
The very impressive digital learning techniques developed by Success Academy, for instance, could have a significant staying power after the pandemic. We see hints of South Korean super-star instructors in dividing teachers into digital lecturers and small group leaders. Nothing screams “impersonal” louder than a district (NYC) which numbers rather than names its schools, and the digital version of Success Academy could be offered to waitlisted students.
If, however, Success Academy organized students into pods and enrolled them in its distance learning program, something truly disruptive could emerge. The pod leader would take on the role of the small group leader in this scenario, leading discussions and facilitating group projects in scout troop leader fashion. Digital learning would provide real-time instruction and access to Success Academy’s finest lecturers from its entire network of schools. It would not be necessary to battle Bill de Blasio to follow the laws of New York and provide space.
Pods are small enough to meet in informal spaces, and equity concerns, such as money to pay guides, provide devices and academic transparency, all could be addressed.
I suspect that combining the in-person element of pods to digital learning is something that a many families and educators will find appealing long after the pandemic has faded. Big-box schooling already was set to struggle to replace retiring Baby Boom teachers in Florida and around the country. Just guessing, but those eligible may be retiring at a faster rate given the pandemic.
A new school model that is fun and empowering to teachers just might be the solution we need, when we need it.