The Grand Scheme

LeiLani Cauthen, Author, The Consumerization of Learning

The following is Chapter 16, The Grand Scheme, from The Consumerization of Learning

Thus far, some of what might be a grand scheme for a revitalized and restructured education sector has already been hinted at – an unstructured form that relies more heavily on direct delivery online with a sort of a virtual networked community administration of parents and students and local schools delivering new roles and redefined functions.

Functions of the digital courseware have already been discussed, so the issues of the grand scheme include:

  • How it could be set up
  • How it could work in practice, and for every age of student
  • Impacts on parents
  • Impacts on learning
  • Transition costs
  • Transition time
  • Workforce modification
  • Professional development stages
  • Cost factors

Those are the biggies. How it could be set up is a matter of taste once the concept of unstructured form has set in.


Avoid Preconceptions

For several years, education has taken technology on at its front lines in the teaching and learning arena. This is not thinking organizationally, seeing the finished product and how it will be arrived at from the top in the executive suites like companies more typically do. It could be said that the thinking by education administrations so far has been with a preconception of delivery mechanism, via or at the teachers, and not even necessarily at the learners. It has been as if the identification of the target to change by the executives was their teacher as delivery mechanism more than the structure with tech as the delivery mechanism. Administrators seemed to have been considering that the structure could all pretty much stay the same and only the troops needed to fight with some added attention from the back-office tech guys. This is not sufficient.

School administrators need to think without preconceptions, meaning trying to start at the place they are really starting from regarding fully digital and mobile education reality – nothing.

Actually, this is important no matter who you are, from superintendent, to state administration executive, to teacher. Think first about the goals of learning and the students – that is student centricity. It is also the same mentality that the commercial consumer delivery mechanism will operate with.

Direct consumerism will think that way; it is the primary appeal – custom personalization without all the added inapplicable regimentations that are sometimes given with an air of authoritarianism presently by our brick-and-mortar schools. To think without preconceived notions is to do one’s best to deliver a quality, personalized experience for the individual without regard to present realities of buildings and staff but via an extremely well-informed digital reality. Such a reality would have a care to the finesse of digital distribution and all the nuance of successful user interface and experience. Well done, the new reality would be one that allows students to take ownership in them- selves. The way this is done in the consumer world is to give the individual, and their parents for the very young, a role as a member, someone who has “skin in the game” the same as having purchased something. Their “agreement” to their highly peronalized journey in the open market will be a financial buy-in, typically. With that comes the expectation that it will be that much more quality than anything found “free.” Imagine a school that drives online “membership” and guides achievement and schedules arrivals at certain activities and events in a seamless interweaving of meaning into the whole learning experience, and refers students to individuals as mentors both inside and outside the current teacher and administrator paradigm. This is well more than a focus on attendance and classroom dynamics.

That is the challenge for schools who want to deliver for free on taxpayer dollars – compete with what will be a highly marketed, crafted user experience, just like consumer choices will offer, except as a school, now with an absence of any negative. There are plenty of negatives in the present structures. Restructuring is not impossible; it just requires an understanding of what technology should really do to transform the end-user experience. Putting the existing structure first just won’t do.

A first step is for state governments to allow a lot of experimentation and alteration at the school level, even across multiple schools and multiple districts, to consider the learner first, and the learner’s life, before other requirements. The age- old “must be present” physically for everything should go. Learners will still want to go when there is a truly good reason.

Local schools must start with a strategy that encompasses how they can facilitate full mobility for learning as a foundation. It may not all be done that way, but having it as a founding goal allows an assumption that all other things can then rest on. An initial program will be to collect all digital inventory and start mapping out how to deliver this in a direct screen-learning model. Make a list of things that just can’t be delivered fully online, such as subjects, projects, or activities. Question anything on the list repeatedly, of course. Note as you go which ones are specialties, perhaps so engagingly delivered by a teacher who dresses up as Abe Lincoln and affects so convincingly his famous Gettysburg Address that this particular lesson gets on a separate list of planned in-person delivery at a physical location as an “Expositional” lesson. It’s a performance, so it fits with the idea of creating a highly engaging experiential learning that it might even make it onto a separate list the school keeps regarding top bullet points about the school’s marketing identity. It might be that students of different ages are at different stages of their learning, so signing up for the annual lesson by Abe is part of student scheduling boards, run off of a software interface that alerts a student that he should calendar it because he’s close to that part of his journey. Attracting or cultivating “talent,” like Hollywood and radio stations do, or porting those individuals in via live webcam, are things that could be a major part of administrative work.

As part of this initial strategy, survey parents of the younger children about forming local parent-run bands of oversight for their own kids in a rotation the school helps figure out; perhaps each parent in a group of five families takes one day of the week for oversight. All  families get a monetary credit and more quality time with their kids. They can “rent” facilities like a classroom from the school if need be. The school gets an overarching insurance policy for parents. Note this is fraught with obvious worries, such as whether or not  parents can be trusted with each other’s kids or even with their own kids! The idea is not at perfection but a matrix of alternatives, a virtual network.

Also as part of the initial strategy, investigate the options for managing all the digital personalization for every learning objective and the scheduling and time management of any of the responsible party(s) for everyone’s learning. This may in fact include signing up grandparents and neighborhood matriarchs who keep watch and shuttle the younger children, in fact extending the current relationship beyond kids to communities in a much more meaningful way. To be a virtual networked community administrative structure, potentially gaining great efficiency by work distribution, it’s  important to  keep in  mind that the effort is a giant community network. Going digital means concentrating on engagement of your whole audience in as many ways as can be delivered while staying focused on your specific core competencies and purposes. Your educational community network has at its center the individual student.

In this strategy, ignore the ideas that someone else could do this better, some already-operational online school. That’s not true. You have things and people that do some things well, perhaps better than anyone. Maybe you take those certain teachers and set up a bank of on-demand expertise in offices that administer personalized journeys through all the software and intersperse that with fantastic and memorable activities to punctuate learning. Some of these activities might be purchased assets including actual physical travel, although virtual travel could do just as well.

Your strategy needs to keep a focus on the end goal – leveraging consumerized learning for deeply individualized educational paths. This could mean that one of the programs you put into your strategy for later execution is a set of teachers rededicated or hired to be the on-boarders of the student into an individualized learning plan, and then actually do the mixing and tracking of those plans across time. This is sort of like a combination of teacher, counselor, and digital curator all in one. It might be done that way, or it might need to be done with a separation of duties in a sort of chain-of-delivery unlike what has been done in the past – a chain akin to the way stores both online and offline interact with speed and precision of service.

Second, this strategy will take some serious “selling” by schools to engage communities in different ways, to evoke personal responsibility in each learning plan and to gain grandmothers and grandfathers and neighborhoods and cross-neighborhoods who adopt each other. There may have to be penalties for flunking out of participation in a primarily online type system being administered, one that reverts to a single central location of old-line professional schooling. Or this is simply looked at as a method more appropriate to that one individual who seems to need more structure.

The setup would also include laws and regulations and normal procedures changing, of course. There is, though, in most states, a lot of flexibility for schools, sometimes more than they know.


What Does It Look Like?

Simply, it looks more like online colleges than it does the primary schools for kindergarten through high school across America.

The individual learner joins a school or some a la carte offerings of the school since they will be buffet-like offerings marketed online, just like most higher-ed institutions. The issues of admin- istration are ones of scheduling and putting in place program leaders, ones who will run certain activities. Historically, those leaders were coaches and teachers.

The student chooses, usually in coordination with the advice of school leaders, their mix of online learning and activities. They accrue credentials along the way.


Parental Involvement

In practice, the big stumbling block that comes to mind for most people is how to handle the younger children. People are very concerned about kindergarteners and primary grade school children. It is perhaps the one point, in my opinion, to worry about the least regarding the software. The best software and most consumerized space are already the earliest lessons for reading, writing, counting, and more. It is the structure of administration of this that is the issue. If parents are all working, how does a school help them? There are myriad ways to engage a community to reduce overhead costs and also cause more learning by leveraging software that is already there that does a large portion of the teaching. The hugging and caring and making sure the work gets done, those are the factors to concentrate on.

The impacts on parents have the potential to be enormously positive. Some parents, with proper scheduling, can have children with them for periods of  the  day  while they are working and the child is doing their own digital work. There is great promise in that for families. There is also, of course, potential for negatives. I think it is best to consider that a change will go positively because mobility is such a driving force for improved life experience – focus on  this, not the negatives.

An actual tax credit or flexible spending accounts are some things that may evolve into being for parents, while also saving enormous amounts of tax money.


All the Rest

The transition costs should not be considered to be nothing, as they have largely been considered thus far. A reworking of budgets in the direction of technology and simply dropping paper text- book purchase will work to get a great distance into the transition. There needs to be incentive money and capital expenditure for the software, but learning gains and administrative efficiency are the prize. An estimation of budget to pull off a complete and fast transition should be put above the $100 billion range for the nation, which is interestingly close to the $100 billion recession bump up of the 2009-2011 federal awards. Those monies, unfortunately, were tracked as having been spent largely on building massive numbers of new buildings, perhaps precisely the opposite of what should have been being done. 1Schools and districts across America still have an opportunity to do things incrementally.

Workforce modification is another matter, and perhaps this is where things really fall down. How does one restructure the work effort into a new model that will work, whose central structure is software driven? A software-driven enterprise of schooling could allow for great efficiencies in education, including great gains for families, provided it is carried through with that in mind. This is worth studying for the next several years.

I am convinced that a grand transition plan would retain and perhaps expand the number of teachers who may not still be called teacher but would be something they could enjoy fitting into – just within a digital reality. It would not necessarily be a dramatic shift to still do some whole-group-type teaching, while also doing a whole lot more office work running digital learning. Ideally this might free a lot of former teachers to work remotely from home for a far greater portion of time. They would just meet up with individuals and “classes” in the schedule as needed. This is exactly like higher education has been operating for decades.

The professional development stages schools should go through will be complex, to say the least. The one piece of advice in this must be to focus attention not on the transactional model of teaching and learning as it has been, but on the model of services used by commercial industries. A service-level-type model works with onboarding, service plans (the educational learning plan), agreements for service levels and extras, help desks, and in many cases has physical outposts that support consumers. This is much like how telecommunication companies operate with mobile phone plans. Transfer plans to other carriers using an underlying technology of SIM cards (Subscriber  Identity  Module  (SIM) card is a portable memory chip that goes with you if needed to another phone if your old one breaks). A school that offers a service-level agreement to learners based on usage will help all students and families achieve the time and utility efficiency they seek in the modern age.

Ultimately, the model for delivery with technology needs to go to what industry calls the “C-suite,” or the Chief Executive Officer and others at that equivalent level in schools, like superintendents, school boards, and states. They are the ones who must understand the new model completely. Keeping local control while building some sort of underbelly of support administratively for state reporting is going to be an issue. Then, doing real professional development is going to require boot- camp-like timed major immersions into systems. Repetitive staging of these types of things would have to be a new normal.

In all, the new trend will be to “flip the administration” of learning, similar to the prior trend that resided at the teaching and learning level of flipping the learning so that reading and taking in the lessons were done outside of school, and then in class students engaged in discussion and projects. We need to now take that trend and expand it out to the entire scheme of education – the whole enterprise must now “flip” so that the entire administration mirrors the changed actions.

This is a job for everyone and a grand scheme that could give education a second life.




1 Dupor, Bill, “Stimulus Grants and Schools: How Was the Money Spent?” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

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