We have all heard variations of the saying: “The right tool for the job makes all the difference.” As the son of a furniture-maker I concede that I might have heard this saying a little more often than other people, but I’m sure we can all agree that the right tool can often make a job easier, more efficient, and deliver better outcomes.
Of course, put the right tool in the hands of a person with the right knowledge, skills and aptitudes and behold the wondrous results. Many of our museums, libraries, universities, cities, towns and homes are filled with products that attest to this. However, when it comes to education, we largely exclude discussions of the tools or products that we need to put in the hands of educators in order to make their jobs easier, more efficient and deliver better learning outcomes.
For the most part, education sector innovation has focused on process innovations. The government, schools of education and private sector organizations have made the reform or improvement of existing administrative arrangements, processes and procedures, or the proposal of new ones their priorities. These process innovations primarily focus on the areas of teacher recruitment, training and support, the provision of more and different schooling options (e.g. Charter Schools), data-tracking and accountability systems, and the refinement of other administrative processes. Few efforts have focused on product innovations.
Let me be clear, process innovations are important. However, existing processes have a finite potential for innovation; that is, they can only be reformed or streamlined up to a point. It sometimes takes the introduction of the right tool or product innovation to unleash significant changes within a domain or across several.
Let’s consider the impact of email for a moment. Since the late 1770s the US Postal Service has picked up and delivered letters door to door in the United States. This is a monumental undertaking; millions of people send millions of letters to millions of different addresses within an area of 3.79 million squares miles. If you want to send a letter look no further than the USPS. They have the people, equipment, procedures and other infrastructure necessary to get your letter delivered to the intended destination within a few days. However, as we all know, the USPS is in trouble. It currently faces a loss of $7 billion for this fiscal year. We just aren’t sending as many letters as we used to. With other faster and more convenient ways to stay in touch with our loved ones, pay our bills, apply for jobs and send invitations, “snail mail” has been reserved for special occasions and is no longer the communication tool it once was for our daily transactions.
While many of us might feel nostalgic for the post office and handwritten letters, our nostalgia apparently isn’t great enough to change our behavior. What we seem to care about more than written letters, is fast, convenient communication. No matter how efficient and convenient the USPS can streamline its processes and procedures for picking up, sorting, transporting and delivering our letters, it can’t compete with email in regard to the key metrics we seem to care about most in our daily written communication. In other words, email is currently the right tool for the daily communication job.
So, my question for all of us in the education sector is this: Are we going to continue to work to deliver a faster letter, or are we going to use email?
Let’s start the discussion now.