Friday, March 29, 2013

The Internet Killed Our Schools: Part One

The Internet is a stone-cold serial killer, and the bodies of dead industries is piling up. The Internet has been on a murdering spree for years. It has either killed, dismembered, and disposed of or is in the process of slaughtering some of the most stable industries in our society. The victim list is impressive:

  • The record industry
  • Travel agents
  • The publishing industry
  • The television industry
  • The manufacturing industry
  • The retail industry
  • Middle management
  • The video rental industry
  • The photo processing industry
  • The United States Postal Service
  • Encyclopedia manufacturers
  • Magazines
  • The stock trading industry
  • The tax preparation industry
... and so on.

The Internet has dramatically changed the landscape of our society. Seth Godin, best known as the author of books such as Tribes and Purple Cow perfectly summed up how the Internet has changed our society in Linchpin. Godin describes a shift in the means of production.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, those that owned the factories owned the means of production. This created two classes- the factory owners and the factory workers. The factory workers exchanged their creative freedom for the security of the factory job- decent pay, health benefits, and a pension. The factory owners provided this security in exchange for a big chunk of the profits derived from the workers' productivity.

Let's use a fictional character to illustrate how this works- his name is Billy. If Billy were born before the Industrial Revolution, he likely would have been a specialized artisan. He would have learned a particular skill and produced a particular product to sell to those in his local community. Billy would have used his ingenuity and creativity to make his product better. In essence, he injected a human element in each and every product he produced. This system existed for thousands of years.

Then factories came along. A few people realized they could make a product faster and cheaper by dividing the labor. Instead of Billy being a highly-skilled artisan making one product at a time, he joined a group of relatively unskilled people that could make a hundreds of times more products in the same amount of time. The factory owner would then reap the profits from the products produced by Billy's group. Billy was now doing mindless work that required no real creativity or decision-making. He gave up his autonomy in exchange for security. The human element was removed. That was the deal he was willing to make with the factory owner.

Eventually we developed schools to train the factory workers. Since the mindless, repetitive work Billy was doing was such a dramatic deviation from the existence humans experienced for thousands of years, a system had to be developed to condition Billy to be a good factory worker. What specific behaviors had to be taught?

  • Conformity
  • Obedience, don't question authority
  • Repeat a simple task repeatedly
  • Follow a strict schedule that segmented the day into clearly defined periods
  • Develop mediocre proficiency in a wide variety of subjects
The design of our schools became exceedingly effective at training people like Billy for a life in the factory. If Billy was an average student, he would eventually work on an assembly line of some sort. If he excelled in school, he might be promoted to management. Either way, Billy was being groomed for the rigors of the factory.

Eventually the factory jobs began to disappear. At that point, the focus of schools began to shift. Factory jobs disappeared. Outsourcing and the electronic revolution moved those jobs overseas. Schools responded by shifting from producing blue collar workers to producing white collar workers. Schools began to focus on college preparation more than vocational training. Billy wasn't being groomed to assemble products; he was being groomed to push papers. 

Along came the Internet. 

It seemed like a rather innocent development... merely an extension of the existing white collar world. Few recognized exactly how the Internet would change our world. The factory owners saw it as another tool to help them continue producing their goods using their ample supply of labor.It was an illusion. The existing industries failed to see that the Internet wasn't a tool to be exploited. 

The Internet was the medium that allowed the factory workers to become competitors to the factory owners. 

Godin does an excellent job of explaining this phenomenon. Suddenly, anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection could produce a product and reach a HUGE audience. Before the Internet, Billy would have needed a huge capital reserve to build a factory. In the absence of said capital, he was relegated to two options: management or the assembly line. Now Billy has a third option- become a factory owner.

Let's say Billy is a writer. Prior to the Internet, if Billy wanted to write a book, he would have to utilize a publishing house. The publishing house was a factory and Billy was working on a different kind of assembly line. The factory owners used Billy's labor to make a healthy profit while kicking enough back to Billy to keep him relatively happy. 

With the Internet, Billy can now write, publish, and promote his book for close to nothing. No capital required. He can connect with and market to an audience numbering in the hundreds of millions or more. 

Not only does this change make the big publishing house obsolete, it puts the behemoth at a major disadvantage. Since Billy is small, he is adaptable. He can produce a product for a smaller niche market. He doesn't have to produce a product that appeals to everyone, which tends to appeal to no one. Billy's products reintroduce the human element. He can also change his strategy at a moment's notice.  

Billy himself isn't enough to threaten the big publishing houses. A hundred or even a thousand such people wouldn't cause them much concern. But the scope of the Internet isn't measured in thousands. It's measured in millions. Or billions. 

The big publishing houses don't have a chance. Even if they embrace the Internet and utilize it as a tool, they won't have the flexibility as the crowd where each individual part is an agent of change.

So what about schools?

Our current model of schools is still based on the factory model. Worse, the policy makers believe small tweaks can adapt the current model to reflect the current and future landscape. They believe changing the daily schedule, introducing technology, or changing requirements will be enough. They're trying to prepare students to work in a different kind of factory, and are oblivious to the obvious:

The students can't be treated as factory workers. Students have to be treated as factories themselves. 

Coming soon- Part two: Student factories- the skills they really need.

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me that school can be blamed in this fact, as well. The case is children are so overwhelmed with home assignments that they begin being bored with all this and start hating school. My kids have so many home assignments, that sometimes I have to apply for online homework help services, so that they can have enough time for rest.