Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education

This post provides my three main takeaways from the book Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education[1] regarding the implications for law schools and legal education. This book examines Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other platforms that allow for learning at scale—i.e., environments with many students and few teachers. According to the author Justin Reich, educational technologies associated with learning at scale are more likely to make incremental enhancements to learning than to fundamentally alter educational systems.

Reich began his career as a K-12 teacher, and he now runs MIT’s Teaching Systems Labs, which focuses on K-12 education. His book covers both the K-12 and university environments.

Because it was published in 2020, the book includes only passing references to the pandemic. Reich authored a follow-up article for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the pandemic’s impact on the issues raised in the book.

Informal Learning at Scale

“Now is the greatest time in history to be a learner.”[2]

The book begins with the story of the Rainbow Loomers. Children use Rainbow Looms to make bracelets and charms out of colorful rubber bands. When this toy became popular in 2013, online communities sprung up where children could share videos and discuss using the looms.

The author describes these online communities as “an extraordinary, organic, almost instantaneous global network of teachers and learners sharing ideas, designs, and techniques.”[3]  But the Rainbow Loomers’ significance lies not in being “extraordinary” but in being ordinary. They serve as an example of a large-scale informal learning network.

Reich returns to the Rainbow Loomers throughout the book to show the power of these networks. He seems very interested in integrating the best aspects of Rainbow Loomers-style learning into the formal educational system.

He acknowledges the challenges:

The most powerful experiences in peer-guided learning at scale tend to be deep, collaborative, sustained, and interest driven. These characteristics, however, are at odds with the pedagogical approach of most schools, which usually require that learning experiences are pursued individually (not collectively), along a set of mandated curriculum guidelines (not determined by students’ interests), and for uniform timespans—the class period, the marking period, the semester (not sustained over time).[4]

Reich envisions informal peer-teaching methods like those used by Rainbow Loomers becoming increasingly integrated into formal educational structures. However, he believes the impact will probably be limited to mitigating the worst effects of the continued reliance on more traditional approaches.

I thought the discussion of the Rainbow Loomers was intriguing, but it is hard to envision ways to integrate informal at-scale learning into law schools or the role that libraries might play in this. One idea could be to work with student organizations to create research guides on subjects of interest to them.

Stanford is doing something like this with their topical virtual displays. Creating more in-depth research guides could be part of access to justice initiatives involving public law libraries and student organizations from different law schools. Polling resources should produce a more valuable and sustainable work product than every organization creating its own research guide.

The EdTech Matthew Effect

“For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken away from them.”[5]

Many people believe that MOOCs and other forms of online education will reduce societal inequalities by expanding educational opportunities. However, Reich argues MOOCs benefit the highly educated and affluent, while those with less fall further behind. He calls this the “edtech Matthew effect,” named after the Biblical verse quoted above.

To demonstrate the edTech Matthew effect, Reich cites a Nature paper titled “Online Education: MOOCs Taken by Educated Few,” which found that 80 percent of Coursera users had a bachelor’s degree and 44 percent already had at least one master’s degree. Studies of edX found similar results.

Putting aside societal implications, this is not bad news for law schools, which target highly educated, self-driven students. And a graduate program—specifically Georgia Tech’s low-cost, high enrollment online master of computer science—provides one of the most hopeful examples of how learning at scale can increase opportunity.

According to Reich:

The online master of science program in computer science at Georgia Tech — the MOOC-based, asynchronous, online master’s that has become the largest computer science degree program in the country — appears to be effectively serving a population of working professional students who by all accounts wouldn’t or couldn’t pursue a master’s otherwise.[6]

Even if there is no MOOC-like law school soon, hybrid and online learning will likely open legal education to populations that otherwise would not have access. And MOOC and MOOC-like educational offerings will probably continue to expand outside of the J.D. program. People in law-related fields, practicing attorneys looking to switch specialties, and prospective law students are examples of potential MOOC beneficiaries.


“This book is a tinkerer’s guide to learning at scale.”[7]

Reich sees the best and most likely path for tech-based improvements to education as “tinkering,” meaning small and slow changes to existing institutions. Tinkering sits somewhere between disruptive innovation and reactive techno-skepticism.

I especially liked the following observation from the Prologue:

Schools and colleges are among the most durable and conservative of our social institutions. They prepare people for the future by connecting them with knowledge and wisdom from the past. Faculty make some accommodations for changing times, but for the most part, instructors teach how they were taught. Schools hold fast.[8]

That certainly sounds like law schools.

But slow and incremental evolution is happening, even within law schools. The pandemic has sped up change since it required all faculty to gain at least a basic understanding of online learning and educational technology.

Tinkering is not a bad thing. I found Reich’s discussion of incremental change to be highly consistent with the approach taken in the popular books Small Teaching and Small Teaching Online.


This was an interesting read. If you want to learn more, Reich held ten online “Book Clubs,” in which he discussed the book’s main ideas with other experts.

[1] Justin Reich, Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education (2020).

[2] Id. at 3.

[3] Id. at 2.

[4]  Id. at 236.

[5] Id. at 149.

[6] Id. at 238.

[7] Id. at 10.

[8] Id. at ix (emphasis added).