A few weeks ago I went to the mall with my son to purchase a a couple of items, including a new Wii remote. The store I’d visited had only black ones in stock – but the customer-centric sales assistant told me that he’d “look out the back” for the white one I wanted. Several minutes later he came back with what I had asked for and the transaction ended with me leaving the store, a happy customer. What my friendly sales person didn’t realise was that I’d watched him go “out the back” – which in this case meant using a back door from the shop I was in to walk down the mall to bring back the item I needed from a competitor who had a shop in another part of the mall. While the two stores (each a part of nation wide chains) were in direct competition in the marketplace, they collaborated in situations where it enabled them to maintain their strong customer focus and make a sale – something known as collabetition. My brother is in retail, and tells me this is common practice in that sector.
So why is it so difficult for us to think this way in the education sector? This week I’ve been working in a local high school and a university where this issue has come into focus for me. In each institution were discussing the vision of education in a networked world, where students may physically attend and fully participate at a local school, but engage in studies provided online from another in order to satisfy the subject choices they have made. The focus and driver for me in my thinking on this is a learner-centred approach, focusing on the needs of the students, rather than those of others involved in the educational process, such as teachers and school leaders. While it is easy to talk about such a philosophy, my experiences this week have made me acutely aware again of the extent to which this creates tensions in our existing instititions, and how the immediate response reflects a teacher or institution-centric view.
In the case of the secondary school it was pointed out to me that schools in our city are in competition with each other, and to provide courses to students in another school where that course may not be available would be to provide a competitive advantage to that school (and potentially a loss of students at the host school). It was seen as potentially OK to provide courses to schools in rural areas (ie those that don’t represent a threat), but not to others in the city who may be regarded as competitors.
Now I’d be the first to agree that there’s a certain logic to the argument – and it certainly isn’t worth fighting against at this stage. If providing courses to rural schools helps get the process of distributed learning underway then let that be the case. However, I’d like to challenge the basis of the logic – it is looking at things from an institutional-centric perspective (need to sustain growth, reputation, quality staff etc in order to maintain programmes etc). If, on the other hand, one takes a student-centric approach, the picture changes. We have large numbers of students in our secondary schools right now who are taking second and even third choice subjects in order to fill their study quota. Wouldn’t it be better if they were able to have all first-choices? Wouldn’t it strengthen their sense of loyalty and belonging to the local school they attend if that institution demonstrated that it cared enough for them to make that provision available?
I’m not convinced that the competition argument is relevant any more. I know, I know, in the short term it will cause ripples – but in the longer term, a 21st century view of the world, the notion of a completely stand-alone school will be history. We need to be thinking of what education will look like in a networked school environment – for the sake of our students and our staff. (Imagine the opportunities in a networked school environment for specialist staff development and professional growth and extension). We need to learn a lesson from the retail industry about collabetition and how this might really play out in education.