Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Sep 24, 2018
Online mentoring, volunteering and expert networks have the real potential to diversify even students' weak tie networks which can lead to new opportunity.
The networked K-12 school — the next big idea in disruptive ed-tech innovation

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Personal connections end up being the secret sauce in nearly five of 10 jobs that are filled. What might happen if the same style of networks are plugged into the K-12 school framework — links to people from the world of work, skilled trades and just plain, old fashioned good advice? For students, it could take the element of random chance entirely out of their career choices and make their academic trajectory more deliberate and rewarding; for school leaders searching for new growth opportunities for their students, this could mark the next big wave of disruptive innovation.

Julia Freeland Fisher, author of a new book, Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks, makes the case that schools’ intense focus on ‘what’ you know — literacy and numeracy, suffers from a critical blind spot: ‘who’ do children know who could positively impact their lives and learning? Where does social capital figure in our schools, how could we inject it into the K-12 system and what will it do to learning outcomes and social opportunity?

Fisher is director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in K-12 and higher education.

In his foreword to Fisher’s book, Clayton Christensen, who coined the term disruptive innovation in the 1990s, says:

For school leaders searching for new growth opportunities for their students, Julia’s work is groundbreaking. All the academic interventions and supports in the world do little to change the opportunities contained in a child’s inherited network — the collection of individuals in her home or community given to her at birth. This book suggests a structure of school that would allow more individuals — even those we don’t think of as part of out traditional education system — to mentor, support and inspire young people.

Fisher explains how both strong social ties from the students’ immediate social circle as well as weaker ties can both ride on online platforms to enter school children's lives and transform both the learning experience and students’ access to opportunity.

Nikhila Natarajan spoke with Julia Freeland Fisher in Boston, Massachusetts over a video call. Highlights from the conversation are below:

Natarajan: How can the framework of the networked school be taken out of the confines of the American geography and be used almost anywhere in the world?

Fisher: Just to take a step back, a lot of the work we do at the (Clayton Christensen) Institute is rethinking education from the ground up. Five years ago, we were really excited about technology for learning and the power of online models to disrupt teaching. But focusing on ed-tech alone, we’re not focusing on the full potential of education technology. If you look at traditional ed-tech markets, we mostly see content delivery and assessment tools rather than connection tools and the sorts of mentors and coaches who are within reach. We believe that the greatest disruptions will come about in the developing world where access and affordability is a chronic struggle. I’m excited about how these tools could impact the school community beyond America. So yes, huge potential.

Natarajan: Every school, implicitly, has the network to provide this type of personalised support; what you’re saying is that they just need to unleash it in an intentional way?

Fisher: Let’s step back and understand why networks matter. Economists and sociologists call this social capital and that network contains value much in the same way financial capital has value. We use the term inherited network to mean that we all inherit a network and that already contains value but it’s also inherently limiting. As the daughter of a psychiatrist and a lawyer, I knew a variety of people throughout my school years in various other professions but almost no one who is in my current profession. You can see that pattern We have real data that shows students growing up in low income backgrounds or isolated geographies have real limitations in their networks which then limit social mobility. So the question we ask is could you use schools to more deliberately shore up students’ access to both caring adults who help them get by and adults who are networked into the knowledge economy. Right now both those structures happen entirely by chance.

Natarajan: You use the term social capital — it’s incredibly hard to measure. How do you start?

Fisher: I don’t say we have the answers but it’s a conversation that we must be having so that we don’t fall into the trap of measuring only what’s easy to measure. A commonly used measure in sociology is the ‘name generator’. So, you ask the individual to generate a set of names of people in his or her network who could help him along. For instance, do you know a doctor or a lawyer? That process could generate almost a map of the assets in an individual’s life and also identify the gaps which schools can begin measuring. There’s a Harvard initiative called the Making Caring Common project and we cite this in the last chapter. A top school asked faculty members to list the names of each student on post-it notes, by grade level, on the walls. Then faculty members placed a yellow dot next to the names of students who they had a close relationship with or would approach them if they had a problem. Red dots were placed next to the names of students who were deemed at risk. Very often, there may be students in a school who have almost no close relationships inside of school. But yes, overall we’re a little bit at Ground Zero on measurement here.

Natarajan: Taking the example of the post-it notes forward — that’s the concept of homophily, right?

Fisher: Let’s unpack that term ‘homophily’ which we use in the book. That can be in part a positive phenomenon and also carry some risks. At it simplest, it’s a terms that says similarity breeds trust. Sociologists use that to explain, say, that if you look at data on friendship networks, they tend to look quite homogenous along certain dimensions — religion, race and education levels. The other powerful fact is that over time, though, the dimensions along which people self sort do change. In America, education has become more salient, gender has become less important. It is important to keep this in mind when we design schools. There’s a temptation to abandon similarity in the pursuit of connecting along lines of difference. What if we can surface dimensions of similarity that might not be readily apparent: whether a student has a similar interest or lives in a similar geography or student and mentor have a rich, shared experience… As we think about connecting students, it could also be tempting to lean more towards measures of asymmetry which we warn against because it could backfire and inhibit the formation of trust.

Natarajan: You say that schools must innovate beyond their core-competency — which is teaching kids stuff they need to know. What’s in it for the schools, which are already overwhelmed by the basics, to innovate?

Fisher: Innovation theory suggests that if you integrate across your value chain in any business — this applies from disk drives to motor vehicles — and show more variables that contribute to performance, you can get breakthrough results. By doing so in school and starting to think about who are the supportive adults and experts our students know, you have the potential to get better academic results. This applies to both the developed and developing world. There are a lot of human capital shortages that this can address too. The world is awash with human capital, we just haven’t designed schools to be able to bring in other informal forms of human capital like mentors and volunteers. As soon as schools can open their processes to allow more of the outside world, the job of educating students may actually become easier too. We talk about Sugata Mitra’s work in the book — his research helped create The Granny Cloud, for instance, which is not in competition with teachers but it just adds to the assets at our disposal.

Natarajan: For companies that are making these tools to plug into schools, what’s the performance defining component? How do they begin calculating ROI?

Fisher: We have begun cataloguing all the tools available on It’s not representative of the entire market but it gives you a feel for what’s out there. What are the business models that support these models. There are these volunteer platforms they are relying heavily on CSR dollars but they have an ROI nested in that business too. Tools like Nepris are able to say — if you want more students working in STEM, research shows we need to get them as early as 3rd grade, so if you give to this platform, you’re giving to the talent pipeline. There are also platforms out there which are using a gig economy model like Uber or Lyft. Student Success Agency pays college students to mentor high school students online. All of this is unlocking new human capital but at a fraction of the cost of a traditional guidance counselor. We are also constantly thinking about business model innovation so that these don’t just become curriculum tools. Just to slice the market — in higher education, because it’s not a single pair market and you’re trying to retain every marginal student, we’re seeing institutions of higher-ed step in and pay for relationships because relationships are part of retaining students. Thinking K-12, profit margin is a funny word in the context of schools but it (profits) can be increased with outcomes because that’s what schools are tasked with. The business is not the one creating value but merely brokering connections where value accrues. There’s no tidy answer yet.

Natarajan: In the scenario of a marketplace where schools are dipping in to buy modular products which they can plug into their systems, how do you implement walled garden systems? How do you filter?

Fisher: Some of the tools we profile have have really invested heavily in this. The minute you talk about networking and students, privacy becomes an issue. So, a couple of things to keep in mind. In the US from what we know, all of the vendors getting volunteers or paid mentors are abiding by the guest rules and that’s fairly commonplace. As far as filtering is concerned, there are much more sophisticated tools to filter text and email than to filter videos. So, in those applications that are typically using video to connect to students, we see one to many applications, where one adult is speaking to many students which is more secure than one on one. In one on one applications, we see options of not using video and instead using voice and text but all this is still in its R&D phase because of where filtering technology is.

There’s also a really exciting and growing market of platforms in education which are allowing educators to go online to facilitate offline connections for students: to source guest speakers for their classrooms or find out-of-school learning opportunities for their students. In those cases, we are seeing the most robust background checks for obvious reasons. One of Clay Christensen’s axioms around innovation is that it’s always circumstance-sensitive. If you’re growing up in an urban center where the barriers are logistical but they’re not actually geographic, there may be all sorts of opportunities inside a school building that it’s not tapping into right now but they’re all right there. For students growing in a rural area with less access to people working in the knowledge economy, connecting online has a real competitive advantage and a cost advantage.

Natarajan: You describe the workings of California Summit. What would it take to scale this to a large population?

Fisher: The California Summit system has gotten a lot of attention in America for a lot of reasons, the Chan Zuckerberg initiative has invested heavily too. I wouldn’t say they are the most networked model of school ever but what they’ve done that others can learn from is that they’ve created a online backbone that unlocks for competence based student progression — which means students are moving at a flexible pace, they don’t rush through lesson plans and what that has done is opened up new pathways through which students can learn while also building new connections. That trio of blended learning which rewards competency-based learning and opens up to the outside world is really where the future of schools could head if we prioritise access to relationships. It’s not that they have abandoned curriculum based learning in service of sending kids outside, they’re doing both at the same time. We also talk about a network of international schools that’s called Big Picture Learning where students are learning via three days a week of internships in the real world which is getting a lot of attention. It all comes down to this: how do you build a learning model that is at the same time rigorous but also open.

Natarajan: What about policymakers, what’s their role here?

Fisher: I think there are two main lessons. One is if we think about the role caring adults play in a student’s life and driving development, some of what academic policy has missed is that we’ve treated academic achievements as a purely academic problem. We haven’t funded poverty in tandem with focus on academic success. It’s a huge lesson on the heels of a high stakes accountability regime in the US. We are now seeing more schools integrate wraparound services. The other learning has more to do with how do students connect beyond inherited networks to have more access to opportunity down the line. We have to start measuring these students’ networks. Are those name generator measures applicable in young people’s lives, for instance? The other is unlocking seat time and students ability to learn outside the classroom and allowing credits for real world learning.

Natarajan: Closing thoughts?

Fisher: Sociologists often refer to strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties derive from your daily life and these are people who care for you, you trust them and so on. Both strong and weak ties offer value because weak ties, much like this broadcast, open the door to new opportunities. That’s where technology and online connections have competitive advantage in young people’s lives. Online mentoring, volunteering and expert networks have the real potential to diversity your weak tie networks which can in turn lead to new opportunity. For obvious and very rational reasons, online connections can seem shallow compared with the web of caring adults, so it is important to clarify how online connections can make even so called ‘weak ties’ work for students everywhere.

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Nikhila Natarajan

Nikhila Natarajan

Nikhila Natarajan is Senior Programme Manager for Media and Digital Content with ORF America. Her work focuses on the future of jobs current research in ...

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