Monday, September 07, 2009

A Low-Fidelity Education?

This article from Wired Magazine has been making the rounds, and the combination of a focus on technology, a mention of Clay Shirky, and the inclusion of Christensen’s disruptive innovation ideas made me want to consider it in relation to our current school system. This post is definitely a thinking-out-loud, draft-thinking post, so bear with me.

The basic thrust of the article is that “good enough” is beating out “really good” or “perfect” in the marketplace, and that “accessibility” and “ease of use” is trumping “power” and “number of features”. So I want to look at our current school system in relation to both the online and hybrid alternatives that already exist or soon will, in the context of what is the “value add” of our current face-to-face system.

Now, this gets tricky when talking about education versus talking about a “product.” Yes, in the end education is a product (or at least a combination of a product and a service), but I still hold onto the idea that it’s still fundamentally different, and therefore the metrics we use to measure “success” have to be different. Having said that, however, I think there are enough similarities to explore this idea.

With that caveat in mind, let’s look at a few quotes from the article.
So what happened? Well, in short, technology happened. The world has sped up, become more connected and a whole lot busier. As a result, what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect. These changes run so deep and wide, they're actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as "high-quality."
“What consumers want . . . is fundamentally changing.” Is this true in education? I would say yes, to a certain extent. People want to learn when they want to learn. They increasingly don’t want to work around somebody else’s schedule, they want the goods and services at the time, place and pace that works for them. If I want to learn something I don’t necessarily want to wait until 7:21 am the next day to learn it (7:21 is when our first period starts).

I could have a great learning experience at 7:21 am, or a good experience at 9:30 pm the night before when I want to have it. Would I rather have the great experience? Yes, I would. But at what point does the ability to have a good experience whenever I want it start to overtake the possibility of a having a great experience on somebody else’s schedule? At what point is it no longer “great” if I have to do it on somebody else’s timetable?

Are we actually changing what we mean when we say “a high quality” education? This one is tough for me, because when I think about education, I always want high quality for our students, not just “good enough.” But I think the point is still an important one – our very definitions of quality are changing based on factors like flexibility and accessibility. I don’t think we can afford the mindset of “we’re the only game in town, so they have to come to us and learn what we say they should learn, on our schedule.” We have to adapt to a much more flexible and accessible time, and make our teaching and learning much more personal, while still trying to bring the high quality that we’ve always valued.
Suddenly what seemed perfect is anything but, and products that appear mediocre at first glance are often the perfect fit.
So is a mediocre online learning experience better than a perfect face-to-face one? I would say no, but the problem is that’s asking the wrong question. Rightly or wrongly, most folks view our current face-to-face schooling experiences as pretty mediocre. Even when they’re better than that, I think all of us would agree that they rarely approach perfect. And while many online learning experiences (I’m talking about formal, accredited learning experiences at the moment) are mediocre, they are increasingly getting better (and certainly informal online learning experiences are already pretty darn good in a lot of cases.)

So I think I would rephrase the question as, “What is it about our face-to-face learning experiences that provides a vastly superior learning opportunity as compared to what students can get online? What’s the value add? Why should they come to us?” And before you have a gut reaction to those questions, really think about them. Really think about how you might provide many of your initial responses in an online/hybrid environment, and whether our current environment really provides those things for all students anyway.
What record labels and retailers failed to recognize was that although MP3 provided relatively low audio quality, it had a number of offsetting positive qualities.
How about we change that slightly?
What public schools failed to recognize was that although online and hybrid classes provided relatively low quality, they had a number of offsetting positive qualities.
At what point does the “relatively low quality” get good enough that the “offsetting positive qualities” outweigh it? When does the ability to learn what you want, when you want to learn it, in a location you want to learn in, outweigh the (current) advantages of face-to-face? When does a changing workplace, which is allowing more and more folks to work from home, remove the daycare factor which, right now, is perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way of this disruptive innovation?
Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford University, recently completed a six-year study of his students. Every year he asked new arrivals in his class to listen to the same musical excerpts played in a variety of digital formats—from standard MP3s to high-fidelity uncompressed files—and rate their preferences. Every year, he reports, more and more students preferred the sound of MP3s, particularly for rock music. They've grown accustomed to what Berger calls the percussive sizzle—aka distortion—found in compressed music. To them, that's what music is supposed to sound like.
At what point will online/hybrid classes be what education is “supposed to look like?” We can wring our hands all we want about how education is different, and about how we shouldn’t cater to the lowest common denominator, and that there is a higher purpose to education (and believe me, I wring my hands as much as the next person), but what if our definition of what it means to be educated changes?

If you were designing an education system right now, in today’s world, with today’s technology, and access to most of the world’s information at your fingertips, and the ability to communicate and collaborate on a global basis both synchronously and asynchronously, would you design our current K-12 system? If we tossed all of our preconceived notions of what “school” is supposed to look like, could we come up with an online or hybrid system that actually provides a better education than what we currently do? Not just a more convenient education, but also actually achieves all those nobler aspects we all value?

I’m not sure exactly what this would look like, but I’m positive of one thing: it would not look like our current system. So, if we can agree on at least that point, doesn’t that pretty much require that we figure out what it does look like, and then implement it? Because if we don’t, somebody else will, and we may not like what it looks like.
The attributes that now matter most all fall under the rubric of accessibility. Thanks to the speed and connectivity of the digital age, we've stopped fussing over pixel counts, sample rates, and feature lists. Instead, we're now focused on three things: ease of use, continuous availability, and low price.
How about:
We’ve stopped fussing over accreditation, graduation rates and test scores. Instead, we’re now focused on three things: accessibility to all, meeting individual student’s needs, and demonstrated proficiency in authentic contexts.
What if instead of using proxies for quality as our metrics, we actually used quality?
Simply put, elawyering makes certain legal services more accessible.

There are trade-offs, of course. "The relationship has less richness than what you'd get from sitting in a lawyer's office," Granat says. "And if you have an issue that's more complex, then you still need to see a lawyer face-to-face." In other words, it's a lower-fidelity experience.

. . . "Elawyering will be mainstream in three years," Granat says. "I predict that in five years, if you're a small firm and don't offer this kind of Web service, you're not going to make it."
I think what face-to-face has (right now, or at least it can) is more “richness,” a more high-fidelity experience. But for how much longer will that be true? And at what point can an online or hybrid class match the vast majority of what we do and we’re reduced to a niche role in education? Could this rephrasing be accurate?
I predict that in ten years, if you’re an education institution and you don’t offer this kind of service, you’re not going to make it.
I don’t know, but how convenient. Ten years would be 2019, right about the time that the research Christensen cites predicts that more than 50% of high school classes will be taught online.
What they found is that the system performed very well. Two doctors working out of a microclinic could meet 80 percent of a typical patient's needs. With a hi-def video conferencing add-on, members could even link to a nearby hospital for a quick consult with a specialist. Patients would still need to travel to a full-size facility for major trauma, surgery, or access to expensive diagnostic equipment, but those are situations that arise infrequently.

If that 80 percent number rings a bell, it's because of the famous Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. And it happens to be a recurring theme in Good Enough products. You can think of it this way: 20 percent of the effort, features, or investment often delivers 80 percent of the value to consumers. That means you can drastically simplify a product or service in order to make it more accessible and still keep 80 percent of what users want—making it Good Enough—which is exactly what Kaiser did.
This relates back to my previous point – if an online or hybrid education can meet 80% of what students need (and I think we’re not that far from that happening) – then when does the tipping point occur? When does a critical mass of the public vote with their feet and decide to flip the current situation, and they decide to get their primary education services online and “supplement” with face-to-face?

Look, I’m still an advocate for schools. Schools where face-to-face still plays a huge part. But articles like this one, combined with many of the things I’m seeing done in schools today, make me worry. They make me worry that we’re going to dismiss online and hybrid schools as “low-fidelity” alternatives to what we do and therefore we can’t be bothered with them. But when does that “low-fidelity, good enough” education actually surpass the quality that we’re providing now in the eyes of our stakeholders? In our dismissiveness and our hubris, are we going to collectively miss the opportunity to shape what future schools look like?


  1. This reminds me of a unit of study being done by a former colleague on the Maori. He is having his students research why and how their culture and customs seem to have remained virtually intact despite the changes to their environment. While I am not sure of the absolute answer, I suspect it is something along the lines of the Maori see value in what they do and how they do it.

    This makes me wonder if the same isn't true of our school culture today. Perhaps it doesn't change despite outside pressures because people in the culture see value in what they do and how they do it? Do we need to rethink the way we address change because of this?

  2. The change will happen rapidly. Once alternatives are viable and mainstream, we will wonder why we stayed with this model so long. Homeschooling has demonstrated the fact that the alternative to traditional education is viable and can be of high quality! We opened an "alternative school" within our school this year with a different time schedule (begins at 11:30 and ends at 5:30) where most of the basic academic curriculum is delivered online. The available "seats" were filled in one day and the waiting list is double what we have enrolled ......hmmmmmm! Thanks for the interesting read Karl!

  3. @Wm Chamberlain - I think you're right, there is a big part of school culture that sees value in what we do and how we do it - and they should to a certain extent. But I think we are often blind to two things: that sometimes (often?) we could do it better; and that our practice doesn't always reflect our ideals.

    @Dave Meister - That is interesting. How many seats in the alternative? And how big is your school?

  4. @Karl Fish

    We have 600+ students and have limited our "alternative" school to 16 seats. It will grow!

  5. I think that one of the issues that we have is the fact that education takes an either/or perspective. There are many different programs that are put into place in schools but the model itself has stayed the same in most cases. We still work the way we have traditionally worked regardless of the programs that are introduced to the system.

    I know that in my district one of our issues is that we have two very distinct firewalls. There is the firewall that has been put into place to protect students from outside content, but there is another firewall that has been put into place to safeguard the system from the world at large as well. I can't help but think that the use of the second type of firewall is what will lead many students away from the current educational system.

    We can't afford to be an either/or kind of system. We need to provide high quality experiences for our students but we need to ensure that those experiences are of high quality. Right now we are not focused well enough to provide high quality experiences because we are spread too thin with too many programs. In that sense, the online classes that students can take as an alternative become more appealing because the quality of the face-to-face interaction is not as good as it would be if the teachers were able to just be teachers. This isn't the case in the schools I have worked in. The teachers are the coaches, RTI/PBS representatives, student activity sponsors, technology committee members, goal team leaders, etc. At the end of the day when you pile on the grading, the lack of professional development during school time, the actual lives that teachers lead outside of school with their families, and the multitude of roles listed my mind you are setting up a situation where classroom instruction is not as good as it used to be and, if trends remain the same, will degrade in quality as more work is dispersed to the few people willing to remain in that classroom environment.

    Schools will remain a necessary and vital part of our society's youth, but we should be taking all of that information we have on brain research, multiple intelligences, and differentiated instruction to provide our students with the kinds of learning experiences that are the best fit for them instead of this one size fits all approach to learning that is leaving us in a situation where we have to ask the question, "A low fidelity education?"

  6. This was such a great read! I am a pre-service teacher working on a Master's in Social Studies education and I really can't wrap my mind around this discussion. My classes are filled with new methods and strategies to "change" the system and while I do believe that if implemented correctly, they could be valuable, some of my colleagues are determined to just "teach how they were taught." Although it would be unfair to say all of my classmates subscribe to this train of thought, many of them, like myself, are overwhelmed by the workload we've been warned about and are trying to figure out a way to “just get through it”. For education to be as high quality as we would hope it to be, the world would have to be perfect. Online education partnered with the conventional classroom is a great alternative to the one size fits all method, but I also see education moving in the faster, more accessible, online route.

  7. A traditional classroom is already often very low fidelity. A traditional school is too. How would you do K-12 simpler and cheaper than we do now? Adding online courses is an enhancement, a sustaining innovation, unless you can substantially cut costs elsewhere.

    Where are you going to do that? Fire the teachers and hire temp replacements without college diplomas? Put one teacher in a room with fifty kids and computers? Let the kids stay at home?

    Well, maybe. But unless you're doing that, hybrid coursework is higher fi. The premise is that it is more expensive (but a good value) and better. Which is fine, but this whole "lo-fi" frame is pointless then.

    OTOH, the situation for post-secondary is completely different.