Redefining Teaching in a Disintermediated World

David D. Thornburg, Ph.D.
Thornburg Center

The twin revolutions of silicon and glass are turning many aspects of our world upside down. The continued explosion of performance from silicon-based integrated circuits provides performance in today's personal computers missing in monstrous mainframes only a few years ago.

Couple the revolution in computing with that in broadband communications, largely driven by the power of fiber-optic systems capable of sending the peak load of phone calls on Mother's Day down a strand of glass the diameter of a human hair, and the combined force of these technologies rocks the status quo to its core.

By linking powerful computers to ubiquitous communication channels, the information-rich world of the Web becomes commonplace.

The World-Wide-Web sprang fully-clothed into the human consciousness in the past year with such a vengeance that it caught nearly everyone by surprise. One can hardly watch an advertisement on television today without seeing an invitation to visit the sponsor's web-site. Ad's blare out the "url's" of company after company, with text looking like the random typing of a squirrel monkey: (

Why the push? Why are advertisers playing to a minority audience of (generally) upscale computer owners? For the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: "That's where the money is."

In 1994 Americans spent more money purchasing computers than television sets. In 1995, the actual number of computers sold exceeded the number of new television purchases. According to Intel's Andy Grove, this will be true world-wide by 1997. Furthermore, half of our home computers (and virtually all of the new ones) have modems in them to provide access to the Net.

Now that computers - many of them with modems - are in over 30% of America's homes, the old guard is in trouble.
It is important to realize that these statistics were collected in a world where computers cost over $2,000 and where home-based telecommunication still takes place at data rates comparable to sucking peanut butter up a soda straw.

With the $500 "network computer" right around the corner, and @Home ( preparing to offer low-cost flat-rate internet access at speed of 10 million bits per second (that's a 350-fold improvement over a "high-speed" connection using your current phone line), the explosion of the Web is still in its infancy.

And this infant is currently doubling in size every 53 days.

One feature of today's networked world is "disintermediation" - the death of the traditional middle-man.

Look at software distribution for example. In the pre-Net days, a software publisher would produce a title, typeset a manual, design a flashy package, manufacture the product in volume, place it with a distributor (at 60% off list price) who would then get the product to retailers where its sales were largely dependent on customers walking in off the street looking for the title. It is rare to find a software retailer whose sales force knows anything significant about the products on display. Because of this, many excellent products languish on the shelves until the space is needed for the Next Great Thing, at which point the remaining inventory is returned to the distributor who then ships it back to the manufacturer who then scraps it. Even old versions of popular titles get shipped back the minute a new revision becomes available.

With the Web as a marketplace, software companies can deal directly with their customers, completely bypassing the distribution and retail channels.

Forefront Group provides an excellent case history in this regard: A demo version of their stellar product, Webwhacker, can be downloaded from their site ( Potential customers have 30 days to try out the product before deciding whether to purchase it. If the customer finds the product valuable, a quick phone, fax, or Net-based transaction seals the purchase on a charge card. A special password is then sent to the customer's e-mail address and he or she is then allowed to download the complete product with full documentation.

The customer buys the program for a fraction of the retail price this product would command in a store. The discount to the distributor and retailer is passed onto the customer.

Note the benefits that come from selling software this way:
The only losers in this transaction are the retailer and distributor - they have been disintermediated out of this company's business.

While disintermediation works for software, what about other products?

Take blue jeans, for example. A visitor to Levi's web site ( is provided with the tools needed to order a perfect pair of jeans. Today their site sends you to a store to order your Personal Pair, but in the future, by following the measurement instructions and placing a order directly with the company, these custom jeans can be crafted and shipped directly to the client. No retailer, no inventory, no scrap, nothing but a pair of properly fitted jeans.

This model of mass customization can be carried further. Chrysler ( provides an on-line showroom highlighting their latest products. In the future, after looking at the features list, a customer will be able to specify exactly the car he or she wants. This car will be custom-built and delivered to the customer within weeks.

By the end of the century, the car will probably be delivered within 3 days.

Stock research ( and trades ( are available on the Web today.

Not long from now, airline tickets ( and hotel reservations ( will be available on-line with the savings are passed on to the customer.

What is the role of stock brokerage firms, clothing stores, car dealerships, and other retail establishments in a world of net-based transactions?

The new role hinges on the words "value-added." Unless the store offers enough to the customer to justify the profit margin, the customer will bypass the traditional channel in an instant. Some retailers and distributors will rise to the challenge, while others will not. Those who fail to find ways to bring extra service to their customers will be out of business.

And this brings me to education - specifically to the institution we call school.

In the school of my youth, the bulk of the teacher's time was spent delivering information, and then testing us on the information that was delivered. Textbooks were designed to maintain information control in the hands of the teachers by insuring that the teacher's copy of the textbook had more information than the child's copy. This, coupled with a lockstep curriculum, created an environment where student inquiry was rare and occasionally treated as aberrant behavior.

One consequence of this model was that many students disliked school, even if they still loved learning. Accordingly, schools (along with prisons and mental hospitals) became places where, if you didn't go, they came and got you.

Even today, most teachers bemoan the fact that children spend more hours watching television than they spend in classrooms.

From the standpoint of "information delivery" educators are tremendously outpaced by the combined horsepower of television and the Web. Without trying to compete with schools, Discovery Channel probably provides more in-depth coverage of the life sciences than most K-12 schools. The History Channel does the same for social studies - and other cable channels contribute as well. All these channels owe a debt to PBS for its pioneering role in using television to inform and educate, as well as entertain.

Add this rich panoply of programming to the power of the Web, and the result is staggering in impact.

For example, the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress ( contains many thousands of photographs and other documents relating to our country's history - all free for the taking. The Web Museum in Paris ( contains a rich collection of fine art from hundreds of artists dating from pre-renaissance to post-modern periods. High-resolution color images and essays on the artists and their works can be downloaded by learners for free.

In addition to raw material, students can take courses - for free - from a variety of institutions ranging from high schools to community colleges and corporate training centers. Sun Microsystems, for example, is moving its entire staff development program on-line, and is making many of its offerings available to the public for free (

Recall that the Web is doubling every 53 days, and you can only imagine what educational content will be on-line next month, let alone next year.

In the face of these technology-driven forces, schools must quickly yield their role as the primary providers of content. Even if they wished to prevail in this arena, schools are still the largest unwired enterprise in America.

Before we toss schools onto the scrap heap of history as yet another casualty in the disintermediation onslaught, we need to revisit the only safeguard available: value-added. If schools are unable to demonstrate enough added-value, they risk becoming irrelevant to the educational enterprise, and will cease to exist.

Fortunately (for schools) added-value can be found. I found it in a wonderful poem on the loss of spirituality by T. S. Eliot - a poem called The Rock. In the first stanza Eliot asks:
Where is the life we've lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we've lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we've lost in information?
These lines hold (I think) the key to redefining schools in ways that will make them desirable places for learners to congregate - even if they aren't forced to attend.

For all its richness, PBS (, Discovery Channel (, CNN ( and the other excellent programming options available in the bulk of our homes, offer only information. The billions of words and images and sounds and movies on the Web offer only information.

The task of educators (and schools) becomes that of running Eliot's words backward. It is human beings in the form of passionate teachers who help students find the knowledge we've lost in information; who help us find the wisdom we've lost in knowledge; and who, most importantly of all, who help us find the life we've lost in living.

Schools that rise to this challenge will flourish. Those that don't deserve to shut down. As I've said on numerous occasions, any teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be.

Like television before it, the Net isn't going away. It is up to all educational institutions at all levels to redefine their role in an information-rich world.

Note: Case studies and references to specific companies do not imply an endorsement of any investment in their securities. The Thornburg Center does not give investment advice of any kind.

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