Redefining Teaching in a Disintermediated World
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: (http://www.buy-me.com...)
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.
- Nielsen's study of internet usage (http://www.commercenet.com)
showed that Americans on the average spend more time on the internet than
they do watching rental videotapes.
- Find/SVP's study of adult internet users (http://etrg.findsvp.com)
shows television viewing dropping in over 30% of their homes.
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
With the $500 "network computer" right around the corner, and
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 (http://www.ffg.com). 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 customer gets to try the product before purchasing it.
- The supplier has no physical inventory to maintain.
- The customer gets a great price.
- The supplier knows the name and (e-mail) address of every customer -
useful information when other products come out.
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 (http://www.levi.com)
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 (http://www.chrysler.com)
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 (http://www.quote.com)
and trades (http://www.etrade.com)
are available on the Web today.
Not long from now, airline tickets (http://www.cntraveler.com)
and hotel reservations (http://www.all-hotels.com)
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
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
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 (http://www.loc.gov)
contains many thousands of photographs and other documents relating to our
country's history - all free for the taking. The Web Museum in Paris (http://www.emf.net/louvre)
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
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 (http://www.sun.com/sunergy).
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
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?
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.
Where is the wisdom we've lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we've lost in information?
For all its richness, PBS (http://www.pbs.org),
Discovery Channel (http://www.discovery.com),
CNN (http://cnn.com) 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
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
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