Dangerous dichotomies, positive problems and Xbox lectures… What is disruptive learning?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the second meeting of the ALT West Midlands Regional Learning Technology Group at Coventry University to discuss disruptive practices in learning technology. Curled up with coffee and beanbags in the DMLL’s astroturf amphitheatre, representatives from universities across the West Midlands gathered to hear and discuss perspectives and experiences of the disruptive movement.

Kicking off the session, Teresa MacKinnon of Warwick University described her experiences of creating connective learning experiences when teaching languages online. She warned of the dangers of false dichotomies found in educational approaches and pointed out the exciting possibilities that often exist at the fulcrum of the “seesaw”, a thought provoking metaphor, I thought.


She also discussed the importance of social platforms as well as some of the challenges of using “vintage” tools like instant messaging, designed by and for a somewhat older generation. There seem to be some quiet ironies of having to teach modern learners how to use traditional web tools so that they might have a more “progressive” learning experience. MacKinnon described her experience of collaborative online language teaching as being one of tensions, giving rise to some very interesting questions, challenges and opportunities. In conclusion, she added the importance of openness in online education, and in this spirit her slides are available via slideshare.

Andy Wright of Mirrador and the University of Birmingham introduced us to the new immersive, virtual learning platform, ALiS. He explained the affordances of virtual world technology and how the barriers associated with platforms like Second Life had been challenged and overcome in the design and development of ALiS. The creative energies behind the project shone through as he enthusiastically described a world where you could be playing a video game and a lecture could pop up on your Xbox. As someone who experienced a live-streamed graduation ceremony as an avatar in Second Life, I’m keen to follow this project as I too can see some untapped potential of virtual worlds in HE.


To conclude the first half, we welcomed Claire Gardener and Louise Hart of the University of Derby to lead an insightful workshop on the disruption caused by the rollout of Office 365. This highlighted the need to engage academic staff in the implementation of new technology and anticipate and provide support where needed.

Following three very different contributions, the diversity of meanings ascribed to the term disruptive was dominating my thoughts. The two main definitions of disruptive are somewhat polarised as negative inconvenience versus positive innovation. When discussing disruptive learning technologies at the home of the DMLL, Coventry University’s Disruptive Media Learning Lab, I feel a sense of responsibility to mindfully and intentionally use the term disruptive to make meanings from both poles and anywhere in between. While Christensen’s (2003) writings on the subject discuss disruptive innovation as a move away from customer-focused practices, our discussions about disruption appear to highlight tensions between the positive and negative poles of disruption. Attempts to innovate outside of the increasingly customer-focused context of HE, could be perceived as disruptive in several senses of the word, and without common understanding of positive disruption, could deter more ambitious projects.

Later, Lawrie Phipps of JISC called upon us to engage with #Codesign16, a collaborative search and discussion on the innovations that will bring about positive change in the future of learning technologies. From our discussions in this session, I’d imagine that truly transformative innovations will arise through disruptive projects. As the subsequent speaker, Jon Rhodes of Wolverhampton University pointed out however, disruption of the positive kind might not necessarily be found through a search for solutions. He hailed the positive outcomes that can arise from perceived problems, using the analogy of misbehaving SatNavs leading to new journeys, new destinations. This concept, he explained, led his team to explore problems as a disruptive approach, rather than pursue terminal searches for solutions.


I really liked this insight, which to me exemplified a real disruptive energy, in the sense that wherever the definition of disruption might be found, it broke the rules.


And so, I went away from this thought-provoking morning with a sense of activism. However broad or narrow our definition of disruptive innovation, there seem to be common themes and tensions arising from a threat to established rules and belief systems. Whether we’re searching for problems or solutions, real innovation and transformation means looking at the rules, asking why they’re there and what happens if we break them. As agents of disruptive learning technology, it falls upon us to wade into controversy and tension in order that we might identify, rescue and champion the disruptive breakthroughs of the future.


Christensen, Clayton M. (2003). The innovator’s solution : creating and sustaining successful growth. Harvard Business Press.



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