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College of Education > News and Publications > News: Jan. - March 2010 > Disruptive Technologies Are a Powerful Social Learning Force

Disruptive Technologies Are a Powerful Social Learning Force

Article about a course designed by Scott McDonald and Cole Camplese

by Joe Savrock (February 2010)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Twitter, blogs, and texting are among the emerging technologies that have transformed the way society communicates. These products of the Web 2.0 era are quickly replacing traditional communication methods.
Noting the growing use of social networking by students, two Penn State educators—Scott McDonald, assistant professor of science education, and Cole Camplese, Penn State’s director of Education Technology Services—decided to investigate a novel way of harnessing widely used technology tools.

McDonald and Camplese collaborated to develop a graduate-level course titled Disruptive Technologies in Teaching and Learning. “Students always seem to be plugged in,” says McDonald. “We wondered how well these technology tools could be used in a teaching and learning context.”

Camplese and McDonald suspected that Web 2.0 would lend itself nicely to classroom pedagogy because of its ability to support social interaction. “The idea was to think about how technology, and in particular social tools, can impact teaching and learning,” says McDonald.

McDonald_class2.jpgThe term disruptive technology was first coined by Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor. It is described as an innovation that unexpectedly displaces an established technology. Disruptive technologies often get a lukewarm reception at the onset. By contrast, sustaining technologies, which improve the state of established devices, typically are viewed in a more favorable light.

McDonald says the course began as a “grand experiment” designed to enable social learning. Neither he nor Camplese knew exactly what to expect.

Prior to planning the course, McDonald and Camplese had already realized that emerging technologies run in parallel with patterns of social interaction. As the course evolved, however, they observed first-hand the power of disruptive technology to transform social patterns. Their students were using technologies in ways that the instuctors had never envisioned or intended.

The course was grounded in elements from two areas of scholarship—technology and social theory. The 18 students had strong background in either one or the other of the two fields. “So members of both constituencies had headaches to overcome,” says McDonald.

The education professionals in the class easily grasped the social theory materials while the technology professionals struggled with the theory. Similarly, with regard to the course’s technology, students with technology background tended to work with the multiple technology tools with more facility. Eventually, though, “we started to see a real increase in participation from both camps,” says Camplese.

The students wrote their class reflections by means of blogging. “It gave them a sense of ownership of their own work,” notes McDonald. “We wanted their work to be on the open Web so they could understand the impact of publishing their work.”

McDonald_class1.jpgIndeed, Web users outside the classroom began responding to the blogs and Twitter posts. “We were getting a thousand unique visits per week,” says Camplese. “The outside community—people not even enrolled in the course—created a whole new social dynamic.”

As the semester progressed, McDonald and Camplese saw that one of these tools was driving the course in a surprisingly new direction: Twitter turned out to be the technology of choice.

“The learning community came together over this one little Web 2.0 technology—with its 140-character limit—more so than any other technology,” says McDonald. “Twitter is the technology that really changed the game in the class. We had thought perhaps the students would gravitate to Facebook or another more substantial tool.”

Camplese adds that, “Early on, it became clear which students were regular Twitter users. The other students didn’t seem to be as connected to the discussions—they were less engaged. But by the middle of the course, all the students were seeing the value of Twitter.”

The students used Twitter as a second channel in their classroom conversations. Camplese likened the Twitter interactions to “the old social practice of passing notes. But we didn’t expect that their notes would become substantive to the course content.”

The course has returned for the Spring 2010 semester, and McDonald and Camplese have added lessons learned from the first time around to the new class. The main content of the course, including student reflective posts and digital artifacts, are in an open Webspace ( Learning from the emergence of Twitter last time, this iteration of the course will examine how technology can support multiple channels of classroom discourse.

“We really feel that we have a chance to push things a little further out there this time,” said McDonald. “The students already know about many of the tools we are using, so we can begin to go deeper into what the tools can do and what that means for education.”