Education’s Blockbuster Moment

A few New Yorkers ago, financial columnist James Surowiecki wrote a short piece about the downfall of Blockbuster video, and why it failed to anticipate the rapid rise of Netflix in its own backyard. Why, he postulated, did Blockbuster not read the tea leaves quickly enough to colonize the web the way it had colonized suburbia? Already blessed with a deep reservoir of customer expertise, a sophisticated system of inventory management, and a nearly ubiquitous and identifiable brand, Blockbuster was well placed to shift its business model from “bricks and mortar” to “clicks and mortar,” yet it did nothing. Which makes me wonder, what might Blockbuster’s downfall augur for the future of public education reform in America?

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2 Comments

  1. Posted December 16, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Sam: I just posted this response on my blog too. http://bit.ly/i40Q2d Let me know what you think. – Bill

    A month ago, one of our most important thinkers on education in this country, Sam Chaltain, wrote a piece asking, Is public education really facing its own “Blockbuster moment”? I encourage you to read it. More recently, Sam has asked for responses to his piece. Herewith mine:

    The Blockbuster/Netflix analogy is a good one. We are approaching, or perhaps already in, “Netschool”, without realizing it. With Blockbuster a customer had to go to a particular location. Yes, there were scores of Blockbusters across the landscape, but they were all pretty much alike and they all needed the customer to walk through the door. Once there, customers were limited to the titles in the store, when they happened to be available in the store. Blockbuster controlled the titles available, the quantity of titles available, and when or how long a customer got to watch them. If you kept a title too long you paid a penalty. Much like school systems controlling what gets taught, how it gets taught, and when in a student’s life it gets taught. Students who need more time with the “product” are often penalized (either by grades or promotion or being treated as “special needs”). Students who can’t get a product they might enjoy are out of luck.

    Blockbuster is store driven. They sell what they think will sell. Netflix is customer driven. They sell what customers ask for. They do it by offering a broader ranger of titles, easier access to the titles, and do a better job of delivering them when you want them. You keep them until you’re done with them. You can use them in convenient locations.

    “Netschool” is also customer driven. This is the important difference. Learning heretofore has always been institution based. The government/church/school has controlled and established what it thinks is important and proper for individuals to learn. (Not that long ago much knowledge was only offered in Latin – like some old-time VHS/Beta debate. Students spent a long time learning Latin, an increasingly obscure code, before getting around to the getting information in Latin, much less useful contemporary information.) Later, the factory model of schooling limited access to learning to particular places, times of day, and particular periods in an individual’s lifespan. Like Blockbuster, a learner had to be onsite at the store. They then had to pick from the store’s available choices. (Yes, the analogy fails in one way. Schools tend to stay stocked on reliable, long running classics, without many “new releases”. Blockbuster tends to rely on the popularity of new releases.) One’s ability to learn was evaluated on how one fit the institutional time coordinates. Both your day and your learning career were/are scheduled. Failure to adhere to the schedule was seen as a problem with the learner, not the schedule, or the content in the store. Blockbuster runs out of stock from time to time. So do schools. Physical education, music, dance, visual arts, drama, among others, all seem to be off the shelves at the moment.

    “Netschool” frees learners from the restrictions of space and time. It allows the learner to determine what they wish to learn and to learn it in a time frame that is convenient for them. In “Netschool” the learner does not have to report to a particular location. One can roam to find not only subject matter of interest, but fellow learners and teachers of interest. In fact, rather than having to be quiet in school, so everyone can hear the teacher, “Netschool” allows the possibility of dialogue and networked discussion between teacher(s) and students(s). The opportunity for discourse around a particular topic multiplies. “Netschool” also allows access to some of the very best curriculum and teachers. It has the potential to provide the widest variety of learning opportunities, taught by the very best teachers.

    Teachers who are adept and can provide useful services will thrive. There won’t be a need for unions to help support inept teachers on “Netschool”. No one will go to them. Khan Academy http://www.khanacademy.org/ is a good example, One good teacher reaches many thousands of students daily.

    Where all this goes is hardly clear. My experience at a recent Edcamp conference leads me to believe that there are already a number of talented, tech-savvy teachers ready to aid their students on a different path. These teachers will spend more time helping their students learn how to learn, on their own, and less time teaching a particular subject.

    What will happen to all the real estate Blockbuster occupies/occupied? What will happen to all the real estate now devoted to schooling? “Netschool” and time may tell. We can’t “stay tuned” to find out. That’s an outmoded broadcast model. We’d best get online to discover the future.

  2. Posted December 20, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Bill,

    Thanks for sharing this — fascinating, and spot on. I’m starting to realize that, for me, the big, hairy audacious goal that drives all my work is something like this — “One day, every person will understand his or her strengths and weaknesses as a learner, know what powerful learning looks like, recognize which learning environments and strategies will be most personally effective, and both expect and demand the right to engage in powerful learning throughout his or her life.” The basic idea is to re-imagine public education (by which I mean educating the public, adults and kids, inside and outside of school, etc.), one person at a time. And your response speaks to that quite well.

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