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disintermediation : Are We There Yet?

Does Schooling Still Have Value?

August 16, 2008 · Posted in culture, Teaching 2.0 · 3 Comments 

“I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.” -Mark Twain

I’ve been aware of the concept of “disintermediation” since reading Donald Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital in the mid-90s. Essentially, disintermediation refers to the elimination of the proverbial middle man in a supply chain. As an example, consider what has happened to travel agencies since the advent of digital technologies. Airlines found that they could save considerable money by selling their tickets electronically directly to customers instead of paying travel agents to sell tickets for them. Travel agents became irrelevant to the process of buying tickets, forcing them into one of two choices: close up shop, or figure out what kind of value they could add to travel that customers would be willing to pay for. The mantra for disintermediation is this: “If you don’t add value to a process, then you’re only adding cost.” If you’re only adding cost, you’ll be quickly disintermediated.

Over the years, I’ve given much thought to the idea of disintermediation with regard to K-16 education. I think it makes sense to apply the disintermediation mantra to schools. We should constantly be asking ourselves which processes contribute to the value of K-16 education and which processes only add cost. True introspection might reveal some shocking answers. For example, elementary school teachers bristle at the suggestion that they are babysitters, but in truth one of the values that K-6 education holds for most working parents is child care. If you don’t believe me, try shortening the length of a school day one day per week to provide professional development to teachers. Parents will not allow it.

In education, we do many things because, frankly, it’s what we’ve always done. We make high school students start school at 7:00 am even though research clearly shows that older adolescents are not morning people–a fact that will come as no shock to most parents. We build schools with multiple closed classrooms and few large or flexible spaces because a class has 25 students and one teacher…right? Schools are probably one of the few institutions that look today much like they looked 50 years ago, despite the fact that very few of the social structures, methods of communication, or technology tools that exist today were around even 10 years ago.

My interest in disintermediation was again peaked by a recent article on OpenEducation.net (Higher Education – Dangerously Close to Becoming Irrelevant). While I do not necessarily agree with every point made in the article, I immediately welcomed another opportunity  to look critically at what I do and why I do it and, most importantly, whether or not it is relevant to the effective education of my post-secondary students.

A citation from Dr. David Wliey immediately caught my attention:

Consider Wiley’s description of the typical college classroom experience.

“Students are inside a classroom (tethered to a place), using textbooks and handouts (printed materials), they must pay tuition and register to attend (the experience is closed), talking during class or working with others outside of class is generally discouraged (each student is isolated though surrounded by peers), each student receives exactly the same instruction as each of her classmates (the information presented is generic), and students are students and do not participate in the teaching process (they are consumers).”

My first reaction was that this pretty well summarized my high school experience in the 60s and is largely accurate in that context today. My second reaction was “Haven’t we learned anything yet?” The reality is that digital information tools and ubiquitous access to information and to collaborative learning tools long ago smashed that monolithic model in most businesses and social institutions, but for many (most?) schools the older models of instruction still prevail.

Again quoting Wiley, the unnamed author provides a potentially more relevant contrast to the old instructional model:

“From her dorm room / the student center / a coffee shop / the bus a student connects to the Internet using her laptop (she is mobile), uses Google to find a relevant web page (a digital resource which is open for her to access). While carrying out her search, she chats with one friend on the phone and another using instant messaging to see if they can assist in her search (she is connected to other people), she follows links from one website to another exploring related information (the content is connected to other content), she quickly finds exactly the information she needs, ignoring irrelevant material (she gets what is important to her personally), and she shares her find with her friends by phone and IM (she participates in the teaching process).”

Sadly, this model happens entirely outside of the context of a classroom. What is the potential lesson for us as K-16 educators?

Basically, I think it is absolutely incumbent on educators at every to critically examine what it means to be a student in our classrooms. What is the value of being in my classroom? Are there ways that I could add greater value to the process of educating my students, particularly with regard to the time they spend with me in class? How much time do they really need to spend with me in class? Assume a class period of 60 minutes. If I have a 45 minute lecture and expect a 15 minute discussion, would it be better to podcast that lecture, assign it to students before class, and use the entire 60 minutes together for discussion and extension activities? Apply the disintermediation mantra–are you adding value, or are you only adding cost?

Let’s put ourselves in the place of the travel agents alluded to in the first paragraph. We may realize that our business model is toast and that changes need to be made, or we may hold on to that model until we become completely irrelevant to the process of travel. In the first case, we need to rethink every aspect of our business, figuring out which elements provide value to our customers and which elements are merely costing us money. We then need to develop a model that is relevant to our customers’ needs, and we need to continually reapply the disintermediation mantra to assure that we remain relevant over time.

Or, we can continue to do what we’re doing until the last few customers leave for a travel service that meets their needs.


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