Educational Ecology

by johnmccreery

On LinkedIn I have gotten myself involved in a conversation that began with the question, “What if the educational system isn’t broken — just irrelevant?” Recently the phrase “educational ecology” appeared in the thread. I was moved to respond as follows. Thought some Voles might be interested.

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Chad, Duane, when you mentioned an “education ecosystem,” I recalled two books that we translated several years ago:

Natsuno Takeshi (2003) i-mode Strategy, and
Natsuno Takeshi (2003) i-mode Ecology

Natsuno Takeshi was one of the key figures in the launch of the NTT i-mode smartphone service in Japan and what he has to say about ecology-building may be very relevant here.

First, why an “ecology”? Ecology was proposed as an alternative to the top-down model characteristic of public telephone monopolies, in which everything from the services to be offered to the equipment on which the services would be delivered was designed, provided and controlled by the telephone company. The purpose was to create a space in which lots of other players, from established equipment manufacturers to entrepreneurial startups would find opportunities for growth, triggering a wave of innovation. NTT, itself like AT&T a privatized version of a former public utility, would retain control of only backbone and banking (transaction management) services and profit from what would become a major increase in traffic on its lines. In the buzz words of the day, everyone involved would find themselves in a win-win situation.

But it wasn’t just the concept that made the launch of i-mode a huge success. It was a series of key decisions made while implementing the concept. The following are a few of the big ones.

1. What shall we call this thing, a smart phone or a wallet computer? Smart phone. Why? Engineers are going to be much more excited about creating a smarter phone than a dumbed-down pocket PC.

2. Should we go with the latest, state-of-the art telecommunications technology that the Europeans were promoting or with a stripped down version of HTML (and later Java) for the software? HTML and Java. Why? Because there were thousands of programmers in the PC world who already knew and used them. That would lower the threshold for new service startups.

3. Should we launch with the ultimate smart phone, with every feature we could think of, at the start? No. Why? Consumers would be overwhelmed and handset manufacturers would loose the opportunity to sell new generations of phones as new features were added one-by-one. The first new feature added was SMS, in a market already primed by pagers.

4. Should NTT ask manufacturers to take a big risk whenever a new feature was added? No. NTT would guarantee any manufacturer who wanted to develop a new phone a minimum first order to cover the costs of development. The market would sort out the winners and losers.

Now, of course, a decade-plus after the original launch, others have adopted the same model, and everyone is wondering what the next big thing will be. In the meantime, however, a huge new market was created, and the number of smartphones in Japan is larger than the human population.

It would be interesting to see those promoting an “education ecology” thinking in the same way, asking themselves how to create an appealing path forward (the smart phone, not the wallet PC) in a new space that offers win-win opportunities for everyone concerned (students, teachers, parents, taxpayers), uses familiar tools (like the choice of HTML and Java), and protects innovators from downside risk (like the minimum order to cover the cost of developing a new phone).

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One Comment to “Educational Ecology”

  1. Yes, I think this really nails something about the innovation / diffusion process and is great to think through for education. A few reactions:

    *Sitting on the Title III educational technology committee has really driven home the importance of not pushing most people too far out of their comfort zones, even or especially when they are already vested as experts. We’ve had the best success so far with making new tools available and letting early adopters create a new culture around them from the ground up.

    *So the ‘familiar tools’ injunction is right on, and familiarization is an interesting process. Issues: at what points do familiar tools become insuperable obstacles to further development vs. essential flywheels against system-crashing change?

    *As DaveM has also mentioned, there’s a powerful incentive to continue validated practices, even when they’re manifestly dysfunctional (and of course there are usually multiple functions around which any given set of practices are relatively effective). This can be the flywheel thing too, but also the closure / rent-seeking behavior of incumbents.

    *For these reasons and more, the Leopard dynamic (we’ll have to change to keep things the same) is always in play, and change agents have to be wary of just re-equipping old dynamics.

    *In light of the above it’s also worth thinking about the various opportunity costs of a regime of constant disruption.

    *In the academic setting the various ideologies and regimes of oversight and judgment also have to be factored in.

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