Unbundling Education: Adding value to schools in the Internet age

Posted on June 13, 2012


ImageSo I ran across this diagram (via @audreywatters), which maps the “value propositions of post-secondary education.” Creator Michael Staton explains:

“Schools spend a lot of time and resources on things that are about to get eaten by scalable Internet technologies. To bring down the cost of school, schools will have to acknowledge this and reposition, adding value where there is light blue, and relegating the dark blue areas to the Internet.”

It’s an interesting idea. And I know Staton developed this diagram with his mind trained toward post-secondary education, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this diagram as it relates to secondary education (and education generally), and it reminds me of some ideas from John Dewey that I sort of keep taped to by desk. (I don’t actually keep them taped to my desk, but I might as well, because I always think about them.)

So two things about this chart.

First, it seems to me that one of the primary ways the light blue differs from the dark blue is the extent to which the light blue “services” rely on a specialized social environment to provide an educational experience. Starting from “Models of Thinking and Doing,” if you work your way clockwise around the bottom half of the chart, you increasingly encounter experiences that rely on a social environment. In Democracy and Education Dewey writes, that the “educator’s part in the enterprise of education is to furnish the environment which stimulates responses and directs the learner’s course”–that subject matter was carried “directly in the matrix of social intercourse.”

The dark blue, by contrast, has a lot to do with content, information, and exemplars, the sort of stuff Dewey called “working capital, indispensable resources, of further inquiry,” and the sort of stuff that is often treated by schools and teachers (and tests) as an end in itself. (And, not incidentally, the sort of stuff that you can find with a Google search.)

The takeaway, for me, is a reminder that the power of schools can be found in their ability to provide students with exactly that “social matrix” that allows them to apply skills and make connections and receive some response from their environment–be it feedback from a mentor, or guidance from a peer.

Second, I’m prompted to ask a question: What educative experiences does a school provide that the student cannot get elsewhere? Nothing crazy-unexpected there, but it has always seemed like a questions that gets at the “school-ness” of school–the school as an educative medium. We (teachers) should always be asking this question as a way of evaluating our place in students’ lives. If we continue to think of “knowledge” as being synonymous with “information,” of course our work will be completely replaced by Internet technology, which is possibly the most robust information storage and retrieval system ever. (I’m personally very partial to libraries, but I also love the Internet.) But if we remember that knowledge is social, transformative, and inherently linked to action, we can possibly do a better job of making ourselves indispensable to students and to society.

So there you go. It’s a good chart. Thanks again to Michael Staton for creating and sharing it.