I’ve had the good fortune of hearing Reed Hastings speak twice in the months since his recent purchase of Dreambox Learning about his vision for the future of education and how we’ll get there. I’m intrigued by his vision of the future, as it aligns quite closely to the way I think about the future as well—a world of rich learning opportunities that are individualized to a learner’s needs and are affordable—but I have some departures from him I think on how we’ll get there. His talks are always intriguing and thoughtful. Below I provide a bit of commentary.
First, many have made the point, as did Hastings, that the advent of the chalkboard in the 1840s was hailed as a game changer, and it didn’t change much. It’s tempting to agree, but I’m actually not sure that’s right. Prior to the advent of the chalkboard, the dominant school model was that of the one-room schoolhouse where students of all abilities were in one room, and a teacher’s job was to work with each student much as a tutor would. Mass education changed all that, and it seems to me that the chalkboard was actually a technology enabler that allowed for that, as it helped transform the teacher into the sage on the stage and away from the guide on the side—precisely what we’re largely trying to reverse now.
Hastings also talked about how Round One of the role of technology over the next five to ten years will be to augment the teacher by allowing kids to catch up, but it won’t be permitted to allow kids to race ahead. Round Two will do that, and as a result, there will be a lot of variation in the classroom, which will pave the way for the teacher to become more of an aide. In Round Three, the teacher will become more of a modeler of behavior. This idea of “augmenting” the teacher sounds a lot like the cramming of technology that we’ve always had—as though the classroom will magically transform itself. I’m quite skeptical that this is the way we’ll get from here to there.
In another strand, Hastings talked about how Rosetta Stone has had roughly $100 million of development effort behind it, and you can buy the product for considerably less (he said $50, but the consumer product is in fact around $200; nevertheless, his basic point remains). He cited several other technology products that are similar. Why doesn’t this happen for most education products? According to him, there isn’t enough distribution; there aren’t enough labs; there isn’t the proper equipment in the labs. No disagreement from me, although what should give us pause is that Rosetta Stone, an education product, is now taking their affordable offering and selling it to schools (for an incredibly low $13 a license in at least one district). How did they get the distribution such that they could do this? By starting as nearly all successful disruptive innovations do—by targeting nonconsumption, in this case the consumer market for people who couldn’t afford to take language lessons or for whom most in-person language lessons would be inconvenient. Once Rosetta Stone built a successful business there and had invested a lot in the product, then they could take it into the formal schooling environment.
Hastings talked about his view that the big problem in public education today is boards of education. He convincingly cites reasons why eliminating unions would not solve our education problems—reasons that accord with the introduction of Disrupting Class. As he said, if unions were the sole problem, then you would expect the education in Massachusetts to be awful, and the education in Mississippi to be great (it’s the opposite). Schools boards, however, create problems everywhere, because they do not allow effective leadership teams to self-perpetuate in essence. So you may see a school district pushing the envelope for a few years, but then a few years later, that same district will be back in the pack or even lagging. It’s a governance issue, according to Hastings.
I don’t disagree that school boards as constituted today create problems for reforming education—see Chapter 8 of Disrupting Class for more on this. But it’s not clear that fixing this in the absence of fixing the incentives in education would solve much. Without going into lots of depth, Hastings makes the point that charter networks, because they solve this problem, are the answer. But charters are beholden to the same seat time rules that regular districts are. They are not funded based on mastery. And the idea that charter networks will just gain scale and serve most kids to solve this I think has a slim chance of coming true for several reasons—one of them being that, as the theory of disruptive innovation shows, if you were placing bets over who would have dominant market share in 30 years from now, it wouldn’t be the entrant organizations that are attacking the incumbents with all of the resources at their disposal head on.