In technology circles the importance of the ‘platform’ is important and well understood. The companies that have had the most success in recent times are those that have become the platforms upon which great ideas are built. But what would it look like if a school imagined itself as a ‘platform’ in this model? What opportunities would this offer and how might this model serve the needs of those at the heart of all schools, the learners.
Tech giant Google is seen by Jeff Jarvis as the poster child for companies in the new economy. Jeff is a Professor of Journalism at City University of New York and tech writer behind ‘Buzz Machine’ and host of podcast 'This Week In Google'. In his book ‘What would Google Do?’ Jarvis (2009) wrote 'The most successful enterprises today are networks - which extract as little value as possible so they can grow as big as possible – and the platforms on which those networks are built’. Large companies are easily seen as platforms in that they provide the resources and services others need, but Google and other tech giants bring a new meaning to the word ‘platform’, these companies allow anyone to build value on top of what they provide. The success of Google comes not only because of the products that they have developed but out of the services created because of the services they offer and share. Take Google Maps as one example:
In the old architecture and language of centralized, controlling businesses, Google Maps would be a product that consumers may use, generating an audience that Google could sell to advertisers. That’s if Google wanted to stay in control. Instead, Google handed over control to anyone. It opened up maps so others could build atop them. (Jarvis 2009)
There are many mapping services but they have not gained the level of success that Google Maps has had, partly because they are not backed by Google but also because the myriad of uses that the users of Maps have created were not made possible. Facebook has had similar success and for similar reasons. For game developers, musicians, artists, photographers, bloggers, restraints, hotels the world, Facebook is the platform that creates a community and allows third-parties to develop upon it. Facebook’s API (application programming interface) which allows developers to create content provided through the service, its plugin environment, mobile platform and authentication services allow companies to both add value to Facebook while growing their own business on the back of its success. The importance of this role as a platform for developers is reflected in Facebook’s shift in approach to rapid change from ‘Move fast and break things’ to ‘Move fast with stable infrastructure’.
For schools the obvious parallel is that they serve a community of learners and that the community is better served when all members of the community are involved in the learning process. Successful schools will build connections with their community and allow learning to extend beyond the classroom into the supposed ‘real world’. (Schools that do this well will most likely have stopped referring to ‘the real world’, as the boundary between the two has disappeared.) For learning to occur outside of the classroom in real ways, their needs to be a consideration of the partnerships which may evolve. The wide community has many resources that schools may benefit from, including access to resources and expertise not available in schools. Situated learning is but one model to be applied where students for example learn in a commercial lab or workshop and so see their classroom learning applied in less theoretical ways. A very effective example of this is CSIRO’s Scientist and Mathematicians in Schools programme that connects schools with expert practitioners in these disciplines.
Linking the community to the school in a ‘platform’ model must also bring tangible benefits to the community beyond suitably educated graduates. Looking inwards the skills and resources inside of schools offer the community valuable resource. From a pool of highly trained educators, manager and leaders to a diverse set of physical resources adaptable to community resource schools have must to offer. Establishing a learning community with the school as a platform allows for a free flow of ideas between the education sector and others, adding value for all in the process. NoTosh is the ideal model of an education based company that has done this taking their expertise into industry and building connections that allow them to bring expertise back to education, a true ‘win win’ for all.
While very nice these community connections fall short of a school as a ‘platform’. For this to happen the school would need to see itself as a platform upon which others can build. The immediate option here is to connect with educational service providers. Schools rely heavily on the resources developed by publishers but often find that they do not quite meet their needs. The feeling is often that the best resources are those crafted in house to meet the particular needs of the learners and of the programme of learning for which they are crafted. If a school sees itself as a ‘platform’ and finds value in open sharing of ideas then it will begin to share its programmes widely and bring in learners from beyond its walls. Further as other schools and communities of learners take the programmes developed by a ‘platform’ thinking school and share back their modified programmes a pool of ideas is developed. Jarvis adds his voice to this discussion 'There’s no reason my children should be limited to the courses at one school; even now, they can get coursework online from no less than MIT and Stanford.’ A school that sees itself as a platform would see the value in openly sharing what it does and in accessing resources from all manner of places.
With the school as a ‘platform’ in the community with diverse connections into and out of the school new opportunities may be explored. The students of the school may not be those who physically attend the school. Courses may be offered through the school that serve other needs identified within the community. A philosophy programme that includes adults as thinking members of the community, technology classes for the community delivered by students or by students working with industry experts, writing classes that bring many budding authors together across location and age. Schools obviously have particular expertise in the areas of cognition, mindsets, thinking strategies and habits of mind that are readily transferred into non-school settings. When these programmes and dispositions are enhanced and informed by strategies not typical of a school environment such as design thinking and systems management new opportunities are exposed. The school as ‘platform’ would encourage programmes to be developed in school for the community and within the community for the school as occurs for Facebook and Google. At some point the school shifts from being a place you go to during set hours and years to the ‘platform’ on which your personal and social learning is built.
There are challenges on the horizon for schools but also opportunities. The role of schools within society is important but may require a degree of adjustment and fine-tuning if they are to maximise the benefits they bring to their communities. Change is inevitable and schools can choose to wait for it or look to get in front of it by innovating on their strengths and finding the opportunities available. To give Jeff Jarvis the concluding words 'Indeed, education is one of the institutions most deserving of disruption – and with the greatest opportunities to come of it.'
Jarvis, J. (2009). What would Google do? New York, NY: Collins Business.
By Nigel Coutts