Monday, December 12, 2005

Emerging Pedagogy: The Innovator's Dilemma

Required reading for the instructional technologist
Christensen, Clayton M. (1997). The Innovator's Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change The Way You Do Business. New York: (2003 ed.) Harper Collins, ISBN 0-06-052199-6.

Why this is an important book
In this book Christensen [Link: his home page] speaks about disruptive technologies. Disruption in this case is not like we may think of disruption as having an unruly student using a cell phone in class. Disruptive technologies are technologies that disrupt existing technological and market paradigms.

This is a business book, not a book about how to use some important new technology. What this book talks about is markets and how technologies come along that change sustaining markets and offer features that eventually make the previous sustaining technologies obsolete. Christensen uses many examples ranging from small disk drives to steam shovels.

What the sustaining technologies he speaks about have in common is that they had evolved to the point that the products of the sustaining technologies were very mature. There was little that manufacturers could do to differentiate their products from those of their competitor or ad value to their mature products. When this happens products became commodities. Manufacturers have sought to improve these products, most of the improvements added features of little value for the consumer. This left the products with a surplus of performance over need.

This surplus introduced the opportunity for a new smaller manufacturer to introduce a product of seemingly inferior performance that had an attribute, such as small size or lower cost, that met a need that was not addressed by the sustaining technology. Because of the size of the big market, manufacturers sought big customer accounts to get big profits. The big market players were not able, or even desirous to compete in the niche small profit markets addressed by the new small companies. This left the emerging small players alone to define the emerging products and the initially small markets they addressed. In such a niche market the disruptive product could evolve. The disruptive product often had such inferior performance to the sustaining product in the established market that it was not seen as a threat. By the time the disruptive product was evolved to the point that it could attack the established market from below it was too late for the manufacturer of the established product to react. Time and again the result has been the collapse of the manufacturer of the product that was disrupted and its replacement with the manufacturer of the disruptive product, which then became the new sustaining product.

The technologies of emerging pedagogy and their relationship to the technologies of the sustaining pedagogy can, in my opinion, be seen this way. This can be compared to technologies of the past. For example, like the horseless carriage of 100 years ago in how that technology attacked the dominant land transportation technology of the early 20th century, the steam powered passenger train. One hundred years ago the automobile was of such low reliability, had low performance and the road infrastructure was so poorly designed that it seemed no threat to the Pullman trains of the era. When we look at technologies like blogging, RSS, SMS, small portable devices, podcasting and so forth we need to remember, these are very young emergent technologies. We can't just sit snugly in our ivy covered buildings smug in the belief that the university will always be the best and only solution for higher education. There are a lot of people out there who are unable to come to our universities. This is a niche market just waiting to be served by technologies that have a lot of potential for development.

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