Uber disrupted transportation. How do we disrupt education?

dj-normIn the 21st century, technology has changed almost every facet of our lives: Uber changed taxi services by showing how to manage a transport company without needing to have a fleet of cars. Airbnb changed the tourist industry by showing travelers an alternative way of finding accommodations without relying on hotels.

Economist Clayton M. Christensen called these kinds of companies “disruptive innovations.” Disruptive innovations don’t simply improve an existing market; they completely change the way the market functions by introducing a totally new model.   

Before joining the Global Teachers Institute(GTI), I worked in several industries that were experiencing disruptive innovation: retail stores being replaced by online e-commerce sites, newspapers being replaced by online news portals, etc. Now working in the education space, I’m convinced that teacher training needs a disruptive innovation too.  

So far, our conventional approach for teacher-training has not worked.  South Africa needs approximately 25 000 new teachers each year, yet our residential universities that have B.Ed. programmes only produce 10 000 teachers each year.  And as #feesmustfall protests in recent years have shown, access to these universities is becoming increasingly more expensive.  While long-distance programmes, especially that of UNISA, have tried to fill that gap, results are not promising: Less than 15% of all students who register for a UNISA B.Ed. degree complete it within 5 years.  For many students from under-resourced communities, the lack of adequate study facilities at home and the lack of tutorial support at school, makes university programs even more challenging. 

There’s also the problem of teacher retention.  Even with government financial assistance for teacher education (in South Africa, the government administers 14 000 bursaries and loans to respective teachers), the average teacher still leaves the profession after just three years.

This all confirms that our investment in traditional teacher-training programs hasn’t paid off. But instead of becoming pessimistic about this crisis in teacher education, we should embrace it as an opportunity to rethink the whole model.

Instead of building more universities that few can afford, or funneling students into these programs with little emotional support, we should be changing the site where teacher-training occurs. Instead of relying on universities to house our teacher education programs, we should use the vast amount of teaching resources we already have: our top-performing elementary and secondary schools.

At the GTI, we recognize that these schools are in fact the best sites for teacher-training. Our program places our student teachers in sites from the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition across the country. This provides student teachers on-the-ground training in real-world classrooms. We also connect each teacher with a mentor who guides their learning, and with a weekly support group that helps student teachers learn from each other. Student teachers then also complete academic coursework through UNISA.

In this model, student teachers get the education of a university program paired with the experiential learning that universities can’t provide. By putting the teacher in the seat of the action, we allow our teachers to gain their credentials while also working in a classroom from Day One.

In the past, the academic, “Ivory Tower” approach was all that was possible: access to education depended entirely on where you were geographically. Students had to attend university spaces in order to access highly prized academic content and learn from prestigious faculty. But with the technology we have today, that’s no longer necessary. This information and academic material has become more widely available and accessible, no matter where we are. This means that we finally have room to rethink whether a university classroom is the best place for student teachers to learn. Instead, why not center teacher-training around the classrooms they’ll eventually work in? Shouldn’t that kind of experiential learning happen a lot sooner in a teacher’s educational journey?

Disruptive innovations are risky. They take far more time that incremental improvements, and they come with no guarantee that a transformed system will actually work in the long-term. But when they do, that improvement is much faster and more significant.

We’ve reached a point in education where that risk is worth the reward. The incremental progress we’ve made is not good enough. In 2016, we don’t need universities to make teacher training better. We need them to transform the way they are done.

In the past, when it comes to innovation, too often education has lagged behind other industries. It’s time that education becomes an innovative space, just like any other area of our society. We can no longer afford to stay so entrenched in our old models that we are not willing to accommodate new ideas that could create lasting change.

David Jacobs is the Business Development Manager at the GTI.