Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Connectability

I would posit that the greatest problem holding back education is our tendency toward building silos. Worse, we have myriad reasons to convince ourselves that their construction is “the right thing to do.” This often has the effect of making our separations invisible to us - prisons of our own design. If we are to move forward as a profession, it will be through a strong collaboration that doesn’t exclude or separate any of the parties that have a stake in this work.

One of the bright spots in this struggle is the forum of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), which Candice and I attended this past week in San Antonio. These representatives from each state are some of the most experienced individuals in educational technology, and their gathering is coveted by savvy, education-focused businesses hoping to get some feedback about their products and market strategy. The reason we convene is to combine our efforts, to collaborate with one another to tackle the larger problems that we each struggle with: building a strong infrastructure, using data in meaningful ways, and navigating the digital transformation. For this brief moment we discuss our hurdles, share our perspectives, and welcome businesses as teammates in our efforts.

So why is this kind of unity limited to a few brief days? There are a number of enemies to collaboration; dark forces that cause the walls to go up. Thinking about these, I find that I am most frustrated by these three C’s:

Control. Aren’t we control-minded? As a teacher I was expected to be in control of my class and my content, and as an administrator the responsibilities multiplied exponentially. We tend to build our walls around those things we are responsible for, excluding that which is beyond our control. Teachers shut their doors, principals focus on their schools and state leaders highlight their boundaries on the map. Business is certainly not immune to the control affliction. In one session, a company representative shared their reasoning for not allowing content to be imported into other systems, saying: “we feel it really works best inside our platform.” And, of course it does.  But does that justify the silo you have built, making it far more difficult for others to connect with it?

Compartmentalization. This almost sounds redundant, but it is the particular affliction of entities that have become too big for their own good. It is the fragmenting that happens when groups become too large to talk to one another, or their subgroups become so specialized that they fail to understand the work of other groups. One company we spoke with had acquired several smaller businesses, covering so many facets of education that their work was spread across half a dozen divisions within the company. They had become so vast, that members in one division were attempting to create solutions that already existed elsewhere in the company. In schools our biggest fragmentation often happens when leaders of curriculum and technology haven’t realized that they are working toward the same goals. We too have the communication issues, traveling hundreds of miles for that rare conference opportunity where we may finally talk to the teacher who was just down the hall.

Competition. There are also a number of forces that are attempting to convince us that competition is the cure for modern education.  In truth, since a modicum of competition seems to cause schools to treat students more like customers and less like a captive audience, surely not all competition is evil. But competition is the antithesis of collaboration. Taken to the extreme, it will diminish the sharing that is so vital to our practice. If we follow the business model to the point where schools protect their best practices like trade secrets, then the disparity amongst our schools will only increase.

The cure for these, as I’ve learned at the hands of a couple of brilliant mentors, is something best described as Connectability. Akin to interoperability, connectability is a measure of how open you are to collaboration, team efforts, and true partnerships. It means that at your edges, like the teeth of a cog or the bumps on a building block, provide an easy way for people to connect with what you do. You identify forces that are engaged in the same work and find a common ground where you can join forces. And in very simple terms, it means that you don’t choose systems that fail to play nice with others.

Strong movement requires momentum, and momentum will not come from a collection of isolated efforts.  It comes from people relinquishing a measure of control and saying that we can agree on the best way to move forward. We are at a crossroads on a number of issues in education… common core standards, assessment consortia, digital conversion, broadband access - to list a few. With more of us across the country facing the same obstacles, will we each build our own ladder? Or will we choose to help one another over the wall? Are you pushing forward alone? Or will you choose to be connectable?

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