Wharton Professor and long-time digital citizen Kevin Werbach (anyone else here old enough to remember his Bare Bones Guide to HTML?) posts the Ten Challenges for the Network Age on the Supernova 2008 blog. He is using these ten challenges as the framework for the Supernova conference this year, and while I am often wary of education thinking that we just have to take the questions that business is pondering and apply them to education, I’ve known Kevin through various digital communities for around fifteen years, and I greatly respect the way he considers issues. He does look at these questions from a media / communications lens, and that lens has some powerful ramifications for education as well. With that… here are some thoughts on his ten challenges:

Scarcity and Abundance
(Both are sources of value, yet they cannot coexist.)

For education, clearly this challenge is particularly relevant — This is probably a blog post or three all to itself. (O.k. — they all might be.) But I’d define this challenge in this way — How do we handle the abundance of inputs and outputs available to our students given the scarcity of two major problems in our schools: Allowed / Accepted Channels of Access (number of computers per child, bandwidth, filtering, restrictions on publishing, etc…) and time.

Choice and Coordination
(Users are in control, but don’t they need guides to avoid being overwhelmed?)

I love that it’s not just education that is struggling with this. Kevin hits on the ultimate pedagogical question of the 21st century (and probably of the 20th, too, but that’s another story.) How we help our students learn to navigate the Towel of Babel that is the internet these days is probably one of the most important things we can teach our kids. Smart, ethical use of information is everything. Kids do have more information at their fingertips than ever before in human history. More than ever before, they need teachers, mentors, guides, to teach them how to handle that. It is my contention that as educators realize that they no longer are or need to be the ultimate arbiter of all content in the classroom, what we must realize is that we now have a much more difficult and important job to do — we must teach wisdom.

Aggregation and Fragmentation
(Network effects mean that the big players get bigger, but at the same time, markets increasingly specialize and personalize.)

Harder to apply this one to education on a "tech" level, but I’ll take this one in a different direction. We spent the last century building comprehensive high schools where the big players did get bigger, such that you now have high schools of 4,000 – 5,000 students in many places in our country. (Not just urban — the "Regional HS" is a staple around here.) Over the past ten years, in our cities, we are seeing the rise of the small school movement (and probably also the charter school movement), where schools do specialize around themes or learning styles or ideas. This movement is, in my opinion, nascent and still very fragile, but it’s an interesting moment in time where school admissions are becoming market driven and schools are having to create more and more of a personalized experience for students.

This, of course, is also happening at a time where the big players have gotten bigger and bigger. "Data driven decision-making" (in quotes because I still firmly believe that much of the data schools are using is poor and therefore we’re making bad decisions) and NCLB and, sadly, technology, has meant that every test score can now be immediately published. We are seeing, in schools, technology used administratively as big brother, with more and more standardization being pushed top-down from the federal, state and district levels, and sadly, the very tools that could free education are often used to bind it. This is the paradox that we have yet to solve.

Stability and Disruption
(True innovation requires disruption, but disruption can be painful and costly, especially where investment and trust are significant.)

Again, this one hits education right on the head — perhaps more powerfully and painfully than it does business. As educators, we must be hyper-aware that we cannot be revolutionaries at the expense of our students. One of the very real — and not all that visionary — parts of our job is to prepare the kids for college. Therefore, we must be very careful with the amount of disruption we cause because we must still create institutions that are recognized by the very slow-to-change higher-ed institutions that then select our students. This is one of the reasons that we so much more innovation in the urban districts than the suburban districts. Urban districts, by and large, are not viewed as stable, there isn’t much investment and there isn’t much trust, so disruption is easier, because there’s more willingness to take risks.

We must take risks in education. We must challenge the tried-and-true way of educating students, but we must do it thoughtfully and carefully and transparently, because we don’t have the luxury of just "going out of business." Every school that makes those choices poorly affects the lives of the students who honored that school with their choice to go there. This is — as much as any other reason — we must always, always, always humble ourselves before the enormity of the task in front of us.

Behavior and Rationality
(People don’t always act according to models of rationality, especially when connected to one another, but our economic frameworks assume they do.)

People don’t always act rationally, and students are people too. Ergo, students don’t always act rationally. This is not a shock to any educator or parent. The fact that this translates to — and is perhaps augmented by — their behavior online is also not a shock. But it’s also true that if we substitute "educational" for "economic" we also have a problem that our educational frameworks assume some level of rationality as well. It often seems obvious to teachers that "If student does this, they receive that." And yet, that very simple causal relationship (think, "Do you homework, do well in class.") is often missed by kids. I’d argue that is because those simple causalities often aren’t, but again, that’s another blog post.

How this relates to the way schools adapt to the digitial world is simply this — we no longer have the luxury of assuming that we don’t have to teach about this stuff. Every school should and must teach students the idea that "We are the stories we tell." Every school should and must teach digital ethics, teach the idea of creating a deliberate and thoughtful version of ourselves online. Every school should and must challenges students to think about their behavior — on and off-line — as if the world depended on it, because, quite honestly, it does.

O.k. — this blog post is now a LOT longer than I expected it to be, and it’s 60 degrees out here on the last weekday of Spring Break. Part Two is coming… thank you to Kevin for challenging me to think and write about this. Suffice to say, if these are your ten challenges, I think Supernova 2008 will be an amazing conference. When are you running one for educators, Kevin?

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