The Digital Transition: When Will Schools Be Transformed?
By Leilani Cauthen
Is there an end point in this digital transformation for institutional education? The short answer is yes, there is an end point, but getting there may take some exhaustive change. It will be a journey of five to ten years and includes a change continuum that brings schools into the “Age of Experience.”
The Age of Experience is an economic term and describes our present age as being beyond merely a focus on information and technology. It is a time when our online and offline identities are converging, accelerating the development of experience-driven products. As I share this idea around the country, most teachers and school administrators can see the logic of their change journeys ending at this point; it resonates well with their internal terminology, such as “blended learning.” Education executives are relieved to hear that there’s an end point in sight, because they don’t want to keep shifting the pieces and parts of their operations around indefinitely. Continuous disruption has the feel of having some deep wrong that can’t be discovered.
Most leaders understand that continuous disruption leads to destruction of the organization. When you engage in too much change, getting into the thin threads that hold together a working organization of people and things, you can wreck productivity and morale, and ultimately kill the organization.
Educators can’t imagine a world where their industry isn’t able to stay the way it’s always been. They feel that if it changes, they will lose all sense of order. Federal compliance requirements, new testing, new standards, a changing population of students, economic pressure and an urgency to integrate technology make for one wild ride for any leader. This is especially true for leaders who are not trained in any kind of business or programmatic execution and have mostly risen in the ranks from their training as a teacher.
In 2013-2014, the real beginning of the digital transformation, schools mostly stumbled about as they either considered or implemented a widespread acquisition of computing devices. Unfortunately, they implemented computing devices as a tactic without a real understanding of their use or how the environment would change in many ways.
By 2016, most schools and districts were in a buying mode, scooping up vast amounts of digital curriculum, but not always with the necessary tactical maps behind them, or a plan to administer cost negotiations with the thousands of publishers or a proper vetting of the purchased or custom home-built digital learning objects.
Now, districts are beginning to focus on quality over quantity, having noticed that the billions spent did little to raise test scores and measurably advance learning. The process is moving apace and will continue on a continuum through stages that will define the digital transformation and modernize education, going from strategy consideration and implementation, all the way through to a refinement that will eventually arrive at the same place as the other industries that have moved through the technology revolution – to the Age of Experience. Here are the stages you can expect.
For schools, the strategy years are characterized by a real concern about devices and networks. They are the year or years where a district starts off with devices and ends with a plan to implement digital learning or vice versa. It is characterized by a lot of discussions about equity and home access, and the right kind of device per grade. This stage does not necessarily recognize the highest capabilities of digital technologies and merely substitutes old ways for a new mode with the lowest orchestration of software.
In the Strategy Years, a school needs an advance guard of enthusiasts and leaders. There is a lot of depth to the strategy conversation. Some schools and districts have done this well, but they are in the minority. After setting goals and programming out a strategy, schools find they are in a couple of heated years of tactics arguments. These arguments will be over the broad, general plan of access and fairness for all teachers and grades, because many schools find they can’t use the same device for all ages. Others find they can’t do live online testing without breaking the network, or don’t even have the hope of equal access any day of the normal school week due to the high numbers of odd devices hitting their networks for which they never planned. This phase includes discussions on the utility of the individual pieces, like what file standards should be used and what types of curriculum software features work the best.
In this phase, the tendency of administrators is to let these conversations take place among the rank-and-file teachers, with only an admonishment to coordinate with the instructional and technology staffs. This as a tactic in itself is barely recognized for what it is — a lack of closely supervised leadership. Leaders with this approach either do not see the relevancy or they cannot grasp the significance. They often say, “We let the teachers make all the choices as to what and how they will use various technologies including the software elements.” The lack of tactics leadership leads to such wonders as vast and unsustainable quantities of digital files, tens of thousands of which are barely tracked and typically hard to find. Most are irrelevant or quickly out of date. Also, many critical resources are left on the individual’s own desktop, frequently not even backed up. Or the teacher allows the students to log into outside services that are collecting huge amounts of student data.
Lack of tactics leadership involves more than just the risk; it also leads to the continued overwhelming of teachers who are trying to cope and get the job done. A true tactics conversation involves discussions about a fully digital coverage model, how the school can transition from paper and printing to the highest degree possible and proving exactly how their informational and teaching models will lower cost and gain model efficiency.
The Sustainability Years
When I say “sustainability,” I’m not talking about being green by being ecologically aware and doing your bit with recycling. It’s the ability of your district to sustain a new working model for teaching and learning. In other words, is the school or district able to deliver, in a stable, long-term manner, complete packages of learning for their students digitally and graduate them, not necessarily based on grades, but by readiness and skills to enter the world of 2020 and beyond?
The sustainability conversation is going to go deep in the next few years. Schools will run into all kinds of archaic legislation, competition from consumerization, faulty funding lines and old policies that will have to be overturned to have a bit more breathing room for their transformation.
Administrators will know they are coming through the sustainability arguments when they have reoriented themselves to think as a software company would think. This means that they have started to enter the same frame of reference as all other industries have done. They will solidly confront the reality of the digital age, that to communicate with populations of students and teachers and control them well through the end goals, everyone should be on the same “channel.” That channel is, of course, online for the great majority of communications. It is well beyond individual face-to-face interactions and on a global scale, bringing fantastic efficiencies in knowledge access that allow for local purveyors-of-knowledge to change what they do to be more service-oriented and a less autocratic source of learning.
The Analytics Years
The analytics years start with a realization that there are dashboard qualities to much of the software, and that the tons of tests and data contain much more potential for learning. Most of the education industry is consumed with testing and assessment. There is an abiding fear of ever-more analytics. The ability of testing to affect immediate and non-trivial adaptations of learning, true individualization, has yet to be fully realized. In addition, these adaptations have yet to be quantifiable on a national scale so that big testing can be eliminated. The challenge is the timing. Most testing is summative. Results can typically arrive six months later, too late to be actionable but just in time to be punitive.
These big data analytics are rarely transparent even if they are public. The mysteries of the actual questions used in the tests, the methods of testing, the timing of the test, and countless other variables, including the weather and how well the child was fed that day, can all be part of the confusion that leaves educators feeling downtrodden even when the results are good.
Formative assessments, those done inside the daily routine of learning are immensely useful to the student as feedback loops. New, highly designed courseware, which provide various avenues for the student to go down with repetitive variants to questions until the student gains one hundred percent mastery, have the promise of even removing the need for formative assessments. These programs have the ability to collect formative data on a granular level that may include data points like: how long a learner’s eyes remained locked on one aspect of a problem, how many times she had to revisit one part because of how a question was worded, how frequently she had to click on words to get definitions, how slow or fast she was, how much time it took to formulate a sentence for an essay and how much the device spell-corrected. These types of analytics will be coming to teachers in future courseware. In the analytics years, schools will look at the meaning and utility of technology and will look at the collation of these data points to create a more efficient learning path.
Schools and districts will know they have arrived in the Analytics Years because they will be talking a lot about data collected, about what’s useful and what’s not, and administrators and teachers will have their digital dashboards to help them align their efforts towards a full service-orientation for each individual student. Analytics will be used on a vastly more significant scale, but not to discipline teaches and students. Data used by the individual, for the individual, and for the relationship of teaching and learning will be part of the discussion.
The Design Years
Coming through the Analytics Years will cause many in leadership to question things that have never been in question before — even down to the very root basics of what is taught, the actual core subjects. It will seep into the very foundations of the organizational structures, beyond questions about online and face-to-face and well into networked mixes of school branding over “white-labeled” learning modules. Administrations may knit together a group of best-in-class instructors who present over live Internet feeds to teach various lessons at precise moments; courseware and games will be slotted in for certain lessons. Live technology-oriented projects will replace the old science and social studies classes with Crime Scene Investigator-like labs, or even playwriting to script an ancient classical Roman scene that is video edited by the students after performing.
Because of all the new learning modalities, administrators will find themselves remodeling and retrofitting their brick-and-mortar structures to fit. Now that learning is 15-40 percent screen interface, the physical environments will need shifting and the remaining time will need to focus energies on socializing in new ways. Quiet reading areas with bean-bag chairs or giant cushions that allow students to lounge comfortably may be part of the environment, alongside group meeting areas with mobile furniture and lab rooms and cubbies for quiet personal work similar to industry. Group spaces, even “social emotional” spaces that provide for social sharing in the old “whole group” way will be necessary, while students and teachers use social media as a back-channel for one-on-one or small-group chat.
Schools will become well-designed institutions and instructional models so their streamlined and innovative approaches can be marketed for student recruitment purposes in a highly competitive landscape – much like colleges and service companies have had to do. Private industry is already viewing the “Design Economy” in the rear-view mirror.
Education will be joining the Age of Design, leveling up to the rest of industry. In the Design Years, a tangible shift in how institutions communicate and articulate themselves as parts of a community, real or virtual, will become apparent. Schools will know they are in the Design Years when they are most focused on their survival in their markets, gaining more competition from local private schools and unschooling or consumerization.
After the Design Age comes the Age of Experience. Schools will level-up from design to education-as-experience with online and physical interactions so artfully crafted together and personalized that the life-journey of the student will be mapped and adjusted with ease. What can be done with the full capabilities of software design, including virtual reality and intelligent learning engines that adapt lines of inquiry for an individual student, are promising an unlimited potential for experiential learning.
Educators will have a far higher capacity to individualize and can transform learning from mediocre into new levels of student achievement, offering real intellectual creativity and employability. Gifted learners will flourish, and “geniuses” will abound, because the system is built to help them excel on their greatest potential path. The ramifications economically are beyond description.
Not familiar with the idea of the Age of Experience? With the rise of Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft battling for collections of devotees, big business has entered a level of branding and product that is self-evidently called “Experience.” Disney is the high watermark brand of this concept. If you’ve been to Disneyland, you’ve had an experience. If you’ve joined Amazon Prime, you know that they will send you emails at midnight to see if you will rate a movie you just streamed. Facebook sends anniversary videos to keep engagement at a high whine, capturing attention in order to capture everything else you do. Starbucks is a prime “experience brand” with all the theatre of making a cup of coffee individualized.
These brands provide clues for where education will need to arrive as an end point, and not because it is an ideal, but because it will be an expectation. Education will need to provide personal value, as judged by the individual consumer, in this case the student. Attaining this experiential level will need to surpass typical design and aim for best-of-breed brand. It will be the difference between the cache of a local community college and an Ivy League school. Attaining this through technology interface woven in with human interaction is high art. It can even be fun.
Schools and districts will know they have reached the Age of Experience when they find themselves considering the depth of individualizations they can do. Right now, individualization, also known as personalization by most teachers, is the art of mildly adapting the same whole group lesson so that the slower student gets remediation to catch up, or that the student with hearing difficulty is given a special headset to listen in on some video.
This is the end point, the culmination of the digital transformation. If you are an educator, you can take a breath; you made it.
About the Author
Leilani Cauthen is the Founder and CEO of the Learning Counsel, and author of The Consumerization of Learning.