# 71: Online Education — Before and After

Ries, Eric (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, 131.

Story behind the Passage

A few days ago, my mother actually raised the question whether it is such a drama if the schools go on Christmas break a lot earlier than planned because of the current Covid wave. “We would have been happy about not going to school,” she said. “Besides that, they never do much right before the break anyways,” she continued. “But, of course, nowadays, all these parents have no idea what to do with their kids. How sad this all is.”

Well, as happens quite often when mothers say something about current events: She did have a point there. No worries, I am not going into the helicopter parents issues and the fact that parents indeed seem to be overwhelmed by the burden of homeschooling. I am not going into this because I am not a parent and, in general, this discussion freaks me out quite a bit — at least with respect to the majority of middle-class families and their busy schedules. Yes, I know, this sounds nasty but I do think that many people are more busy than they would have to be if they had learned to set some priorities for their lives. When I say “setting priorities” — I mean: THEY should set the priorities instead of allowing other people to do this for them.

Instead of talking about them so much, I want to talk about the kids with parents who generally have a lot of time because they sit at home all day — they have no jobs, they have no money to go anywhere to have this ‘social life’ that everyone seems be missing, and they have no way of helping their kids through school. Even worse, many of them have no idea how important and valuable education is for their children. This is not because they resist it. But they have little education experience of their own. And since all learning comes from experience (Dewey), how could they really understand how learning works exactly? I am not saying they cannot grasp the importance of learning as such.

So, the children with parents in the latter group are always struggling. It did not take Covid to highlight that. But I think, without having done deep research on this, the lack of money and the resulting lack of technology in these families’ homes did do harm to their learning progress. I do not think that this will really have a devastating impact in the very long run. But in the short run, they will certainly be even more behind than they already are. As always, however, I do not want to stop at this point of lamenting the problems these children are facing. Instead, I want to think a bit about the magical potential that exactly these children and adults, at least some of them, can use exactly because they do not have many financial means.

It might be weird to see that I have chosen The Lean Startup to talk about this topic today. But the passage is about Grockit, an education startup that specialized in education games and was later acquired by Kaplan. Of course, the book is one of the most well-known guides on startup principles. As a technology startup, Grockit also followed these rules, even if it was not a ‘typical’ Silicon Valley startup because of its social purpose. That again is something that I want to write a lot more about in the future. I think, we need to make people more aware of the fact that startups and other ventures are created for society. It might sound pretty stupid to emphasize this but I am really missing this basic understanding in this polarized discourse about business merely as some neo-capitalist playing field.

Yes, the venture capitalist game and the insane focus on exponential growth do not serve anybody — except for very few investors and founders. But Grockit as well as many other education startups are prime examples of how entrepreneurship contributes to the welfare of society. I will not get tired to emphasize and explain that again and again — to the public and the founders — that companies are the executive branch of society, if you will. They implement what others are merely thinking, writing, and talking about.

My Learnings

“You spend some time with experts, you spend some time on your own, and you spend some time with your peers.” This sentence by Farb about the logic of learning in and of itself is a lesson in entrepreneurship. He basically dissects a seemingly complicated topic that tends to be discussed in abstract terms, involving curricula and pedagogy, into a clear-cut three-partite activity. I am highlighting this so much because simplicity is something that keeps fascinating me, especially since I think that it will remain one of the hottest and most challenging issues of the next decade — in many realms, including business and research.

Farb, the founder, explains them from the background of substituting them with online learning formats. Especially during Covid now, we have all learned that these elements — at least to a certain extent — can be substituted or at least transported by technology. Yes, people will claim that online learning does not make up for real social interaction. And, from my perspective, the concept of the “expert” also needs to be questioned. Even if one assumes that teachers and professors are experts in their respective fields (well, let us at least hope so), most of them definitely are not experts in online pedagogy. Since pedagogy is decisive for much of the learning success, it is highly likely that the outcome will be affected by this.

One thing that I worry about when it comes to children in families of lower social status, if you want to call it this way, is that they either spend too much or no time at all on their own with the learning material. You often see children on the news who are sitting at the kitchen table doing their homework. I have no problem with the kitchen table, of course. I always did my homework in the living room while watching TV. But in some of these families, the kitchen table is the only real table in the entire apartment and there are five or more other kids playing around. That is what indeed makes it difficult for these kids to concentrate and stay in the game.

The other extreme, of course, is the situation in which there might only be one child in the household and there is no social interaction at all. These children are on their own all the time. Since there are parents who do more harm than good to their children, the only option for these kids is to keep as much of a distance as possible. This is actually where it gets interesting, though. In some cases, these children are among those who also lack the appropriate technology. In other cases, however, my hope is that the technology, even if it is outdated, actually allows them to become creative in unprecedented ways.

Maybe I think about this because I am an only child myself and I always used my creativity when playing. But I do think that especially kids and grownups with little means can become extraordinarily creative and even innovative exactly because of their desperate situation. The internet is such a wonderful invention of humankind that, in case these children have learned some basic skills for using technology, it can really open up new worlds for them. So, overall, I wonder if some children actually emerge from this period with exceptional knowledge and new skills, simply because they had no other option to deal with the situation. This might be a tiny fraction among all children and certainly there will be more negative than positive consequences but this option somehow fills me with hope.

“To me, it’s really all about the students and I didn’t feel like the students were being served as well as they could.” The Grockit founder here states this with respect to his own product development. Of course, the Lean approach is all about learning from your customers and iterating your products in order to best serve them. But in this particular case of students, I wonder if we somehow lost this ability to really think about them. And I do not mean just during Covid. I mean, somewhere in education history, at least in the West. With all this sophisticated and theoretical curriculum design and the respective hierarchies in education (schools, unis) that go along with it, where was the voice of the students in designing traditional education programs? Did anybody really ask them?

In that sense, the digitalization of education really is a great opportunity to fix systemic problems which have zero to do with the virus now and with digitalization. The fact that learning has become such a pain for some and such a status issue for others by now is the consequence of so many decisions in the past that could have been made otherwise. Of course, retrospectively, everyone is smarter, sure. I am not saying that the German education system is a complete mess. What I am simply saying is that the startup spirit of actually developing solutions together with your client — your students respectively — is a very helpful approach that is immanent in tech development and therefore cannot simply be skipped.

The fascinating thing for me is to see how many innovations this crisis will foster — in the field of education but also in many others. I dearly hope that among the future founders, we will find some children that were not the happiest and the wealthiest in this crucial period of human history. But maybe they were the most creative. Maybe they did what entrepreneurship is all about: turning challenges into opportunities and gain the maximum out of very few resources. Hopefully, these children will return to school with a new sense of confidence. Hopefully they will meet teachers who have also learned from the crisis and who are able to see what others cannot see in these students. Hopefully, the hope to live a more educated life than their parents drives them to endure exceptional pain and hardship.

Reflection Questions

1) How do you think about the current status of online teaching? Is it a chance or simply a drawback for the students?

2) If you were a school student today, what would you miss most because of homeschooling — your classmates or your teachers?

3) Are you someone who turns obstacles into opportunities?

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