BU POV Anti-Disruptive Innovation

POV: The Promise of Anti-Disruptive Innovation

Audio: The Promise of Anti-Disruptive Innovation by Amod Lele

Advocates for educational technology often praise disruptive innovation. They are excited about disruption as a progressive force. Webster defines “disruption” as “a break or interruption in the normal course or continuation of some activity, process, etc.” Edtech advocates look to tools like Uber and iTunes that broke or interrupted the normal course of an existing area of business by doing it completely differently, and imagine technology interrupting education in the same way.

But when most people think about disruption, they don’t think about positive or progressive change. I think that includes many of us in higher education. What does it look like to have an interruption in the normal course of education? Maybe a Zoom bomber, rudely interrupting our classes. Recently in BU Today, CAS’s Daryl Healea gave us a history of “BU’s biggest campus disruptions”: these included the Great Depression, World War II, and the Kent State Massacre.

Healea, of course, writes his article in the context of the novel coronavirus: the biggest break or interruption most of us have ever experienced in the normal course or continuation of teaching and learning. Right now, BU’s physical campus has been closed for over a month.

Amod Lele quote BUYet the university is managing to continue on with its work of teaching and learning, to minimize the disruption that the coronavirus is causing us. We are not cancelling instruction; we are continuing on with the university’s teaching work, and making the best of the situation. And – here’s the big point – we are minimizing that disruption because of innovation. We have innovations that are anti-disruptive, and that’s a great thing.

When I was getting my university education there was no such thing as video conferencing. What would we have done if a disruption of the current scale had happened then? Convert everything into a correspondence course by postal mail? More likely, we would have had to face the far more disastrously disruptive option of cancelling classes entirely. Here, the innovation of video conferencing has come to the rescue.

Moreover, just over the past few years, new innovation has made video conferencing significantly better. Five years ago Skype was available, but only for one-on-one conversations. Larger meetings relied on buggy tools like Microsoft Lync; the majority of meetings that I saw held on Lync spent as much time trying to make the tool work as they did in the actual meeting.

Amod Lele quote

We are very fortunate in the current crisis to have innovations like Zoom: whatever its flaws, Zoom allows us to keep up a synchronous mode of teaching, thus allowing us to replicate many of our active learning strategies from the in-person classroom. This innovation lets us keep the disruption to a minimum.

Zoom is an innovation that minimizes disruption in the coronavirus crisis, and that’s a great thing. Beyond the current crisis, other innovations in online education may be anti-disruptive in just this way: allowing people in far-flung places to realize the education they’ve dreamed of, without disrupting their lives by uprooting themselves. The promise of educational technology innovation might just be most fully realized not in causing disruption, but in preventing it.


Photo of Amod Lele

About the Author: As Lead Educational Technologist with the Office of Digital Learning & Innovation, Amod Lele helps faculty navigate a wide array of technologies for use in their classes and professional life.