Can Education Learn From Business?

Extra, extra!

“Experts project that within a few years, more than 1.3 billion people will work virtually.”

In “The Third Wave of Virtual Work,” Harvard Business Review contributors Tammy Johns and Lynda Gatton investigate a hot new work model that more and more companies are adopting to thrive in today’s digital age.

From one teacher’s perspective, this story also provides a prescription for how education can flourish in the 21st century.

Relying on solid data and recent case studies, Johns and Gatton explain how technology and online communication platforms have made it increasingly unnecessary for many people to physically travel to work.

“TELUS, a leading communications provider in Canada, estimates that by 2015 only 30% of its employees will work full-time in a company building and the rest will work virtually,” Johns and Gatton write.

With respect to education, with millions enrolled in online colleges and universities—an attractive alternative to the traditional higher education experience—it’s really a matter of when, not if, the traditional classroom disappears.

Online accredited high schools, like the Florida Virtual School, are also making more of a splash. In a Jan. 1 article, the New Hampshire Union Leader reported that “officials are confident their plans for ‘virtual classrooms’ in the high schools will be ready in time for the Jan. 22 start of the winter quarter.”

Harvard, MIT, Princeton and other leading academic institutions see the writing on the wall, offering their own online courses for credit or enrichment. I’m a huge fan of Coursera, “a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.”

As Johns and Gatton point out, “companies and employees today have more choices for where work is done and by whom.” The same should (and does, to a certain extent) hold true for schools and students. If a school can’t find a qualified physics teacher, why not outsource the job to somebody in Canada, Asia or Europe?

I absolutely love online learning and like it or not, it’s the future of education. Still, I know that many amazing teachers, parents and administrators have real, legitimate concerns about the death of the traditional classroom.

It makes perfect sense to examine the business world, which has already faced many of these same fears and challenges. Looking to save costs while boosting worker satisfaction and production, several years ago, big companies began encouraging employees to work from home.

Hoping for teamwork, they realized they had taken for granted too much division and distribution of labor meant less natural collaboration. Anxious for innovation, they missed the kind of ideation that results from serendipitous encounters and hallway conversations.

How did companies conquer this enormous obstacle? The answer: shared “urban” workplaces with hip furniture, high-speed web connection and plenty of space.

“She could sit wherever, and with whomever, she wanted, and could come and go as she pleased,” Johns and Gatton write. “At the same time, the hub provided the one aspect of a traditional office she sorely missed: the company of other professionals.”

I hope the best and brightest teachers are sitting in a room somewhere, trying their best to apply this successful business model to  education.

Before and after school, without fail, I see students huddled in Starbucks—sipping big frozen drinks while working on projects or studying for tests. Instead of meeting in loud coffee shops, imagine the number of people who would congregate in nearby student hubs, specifically designed for learning. This venue would have charging stations, big tables, comfortable seats, conference rooms, printers and even a coffee machine.

Johns and Gatton speak about “intuitive collaboration technology,” as do Chatter and Yammer, which helps spawn creativity by allowing individuals to communicate and share ideas across industries.

The education world already has a like-minded platform in ePals, a leading social learning site that connects teachers and students from around the world. I’m sure that as technology develops, this company and others like it will cater to changing needs.

Students need guidance and support, but with advances in technology and online learning, alternatives to the traditional classroom setting will continue to evolve, attracting more followers and converting more doubters.



As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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