Toward the Digital Transformation of K-12

Part 1: The What, Why & How of DX Outside K-12

  • "Most school leaders know we’re in the midst of a digital transformation, with a size and scope larger and more significant than anything we’ve seen before … Educators know they have to change but are challenged by the convergence of technology and pedagogy. What technologies can affect learning and experience? How can we get all educators on board? How can we build a case to support our goals? What’s our future vision?"

The above quote sums up the status of the "digital transformation," or DX to the cognoscenti, in K-12: desire — at least some — is there, but action — for the most part — is lacking. Arguably, the digital transformation of K-12 education is the most important task ahead for us in education. It is towards developing a deeper understanding of what digital transformation is, why it needs to be undertaken, and how it can be accomplished, that this two part posting is addressed. While the statement of that goal is straightforward, actually articulating the what, why and how of Digital transformation has been a most challenging and thought-provoking journey!

Here is an overview, then, of each of the two parts of this essay:

  • Part 1: The What, Why, and How of Digital Transformation Outside K-12: The objective of this essay is to understand the issues in the digital transformation of the entertainment industry, the computer manufacturing industry, etc. The lessons we have learned from the digital transformation of those industries should better prepare us for the challenges in carrying out the digital transformation of K-12 education.
  • Part 2: The What, Why, and How of Digital Transformation Inside K-12: The objective of this essay is to assess the state of the art — how is K-12 doing in its digital transformation efforts?

The introductory remarks are over; let’s dive in!

What is Digital transformation?

  • "By IDC's estimates, businesses will spend $1.1 trillion in 2018 on digital transformation technology and services, an increase of 16.8 percent over the $958 billion spent in 2017."  (FYI: 1 trillion is 1,000 billion. One thousand billion is a great deal of money!)

$1 trillion in 2018 –almost a trillion in 2017 — and there is no end to the spending in sight:

  • "By the end of 2019, DX spending will reach $1.7 trillion worldwide …"

And, Digital transformation is not a one-time event; rather it is as ongoing process:

  • "Digital is a journey that requires businesses to be agile."

What is this expensive process, then?

  • "Digital transformation involves using digital technologies to retool business models and processes to make them more efficient or effective."

Let’s unpack that dense sentence:

  • "… using digital technologies" — The new acronym for the range of technologies encompassed by the term "digital" is SMAC: social, mobile, analytics and cloud technologies.  But let’s make it "SMAAC" — where the second A represents "AI" or artificial intelligence
  • "… retool business models and processes" — Simply put a "business model" is the way a company makes money, e.g., one of Apple’s business models is to manufacture iPhones and sell them to consumers; and if the rumors are true that Apple will create a new streaming service that includes original TV, collecting subscription fees would be another business model for Apple.
  • "… make them more efficient or effective" — Unpacking  the terms "efficiency" and "effectiveness" will take a few more sentences to explore; but in that exploration, we should be able to better explain the impact of true digital transformation — not just digital transition. Here we go!

By the 1980s computers had moved out of the university research labs and into the business world. But businesses were not experiencing the gains in productivity that were promised by the companies pushing the computers.  A succinct description of that "Productivity Paradox" was made by the Nobel Laureate in economics, Robert Solow (probably a distant relative of ES):

  • "We see computers everywhere except in the productivity statistics."

In other words, in the '80s, then, businesses were experiencing digital transition — but not digital transformation.

In 1989, Dr. Shoshana Zuboff, Professor, Harvard Business School, provided an analysis of the Productivity Paradox in her seminal work entitled "In the Age of the Smart Machine." In brief, Zuboff distinguished between "automating," where computers replaced an existing, paper-and-pencil process, with some gain in efficiency — usually — and "informating," where the computer was used to invent a whole new process — and gain significant increases in efficiency and effectiveness. For the most part, businesses were automating and not informating! 

For example, in the computer manufacturing industry, the computer was used to manage parts’ inventories, i.e., computers were used to automate an existing paper-and-pencil process. But Dell Computer came along and "informated" — Dell eliminated, for the most part, the need for parts inventory by using an emerging technology — the Internet. In the mid-'90s Dell used the Internet to enable end-users to configure and order a personal computer, thereby accumulating the need to order specific numbers of parts. Then Dell used the Internet to order the various parts from its suppliers — manage the supply-chain, and then Dell used the Internet to schedule delivery of those parts so Dell could engage in "just-in-time" manufacturing. 

These changes — these transformative changes — from the ordering of a computer to the delivery of parts enabled Dell to manufacture computers at a much reduced price, which in turn enabled Dell to offer computers to customers at a reduced price. For a while — until the other computer manufacturers copied, in effect, Dell’s "business model" — Dell was the king of computer manufacturing — and Dell reaped kingly financial benefits from its transformative use of technology!

To summarize:

Hmm… "drives revenue"? Driving revenue is not typically a goal of K-12 schools. In Part 2, where we explicitly examine K-12 education, we will need to take a closer look at this aspect of DX.

Why Is Digital Transformation Needed?

Before Dell, a customer in the market for a computer had limited choices: the customer could go to a small shop and order a custom built computer at a considerable premium or a customer could choose from a vendor’s short list of tiered-priced computers (high-end/expensive to low-end/less expensive).  

But what Dell enabled, with its novel online ordering system, was the personalization of computer purchasing. Every customer — from an individual, to a small business, to a large corporation – could order a custom built computer at a relatively low price! For example, a customer who edited video could order a Dell computer with the fastest CPU, the largest hard-drive (or several, in fact), gobs of RAM, a high-end graphics card, etc. Yes, that computer was more expensive — but that computer was exactly what a video editor wanted. A large organization could order a boatload of computers — virtually all of which had different specifications, e.g., super-high-end machines for the video marketing department, high-end machines for the design department, medium-spec’d machines for the accounting department, and baseline machines for administrators.

By using technology in a transformative manner, Dell was able to make the experience of ordering a computer both enjoyable and effective. (ES & CN remember fondly the time they spent ordering computers on the Dell website!)  

Here is another example from the tech industry: In 2003, Apple came out with iTunes Music Store and transformed the music CD business. Why buy a whole CD when all you want is one track? And, “ripping” music from a CD and copying it over to an MP3 music player, was not a pleasant or easy task for the end user. In contrast, downloading music from iTunes to an iPod was a snap!

Now, as we commented above, digital transformation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process. Apple apparently didn’t see the digital transformation of music as ongoing — and rested after iTunes. And along came Spotify and disrupted the one-time disrupter, Apple!  Actually owning music bits is... is… so 2013: just stream it — what you like, when you like, where you like. Spotify has made the experience of listening to music that much easier, that much more convenient, for the end-user.

Fast forward to 2009, Uber has "Uber-ized" the taxi industry. Ordering a taxi was a serious process: call the dispatcher, have a conversation, wait for the taxi — to not arrive; call the dispatcher again to complain, etc. Upon arrival at the destination, get out the wallet, pay the taxi cab — oh, the driver doesn’t have change? Go into a nearby store, etc. etc. Uber, using the smartphone, made ordering and paying for a "taxi" a simple, click-click experience. (Yes, there is still a bit of glitchyness in the process: due to the inherent imprecision in the GPS system, sometimes it is a challenge for the Uber driver to find his/her passenger.) In offering a distinctly better end-user experience, using readily available technology, Uber and its cousins (e.g., Lyft) have essentially done in the traditional taxi industry.

In fact, in reviewing the numerous articles entitled "the industries ripe for digital transformation" the factor that was common across all the industries ripe for "Uber-izing" was a poor or limited end-user experience.  

  • "Nine out of 10 businesses today are undergoing some form of digital transformation and customer experience is a stated top priority."

How is Digital transformation Realized?

In carrying out DX, the consensus is that technology itself is important:

  • "Digital transformation is often driven by the IT organization. … The technology is actually the center of what growth is built on. The technology implications are driving the future of the business itself."

And the core technology driver will be AI – Artificial Intelligence:

  • "If [your company doesn’t] have an AI strategy, you’re going to die in the world that’s coming. … more and more AI interfaces will provide natural language inputs and outputs, and proactively make decisions on the user’s behalf … "

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

AI is the latest, cure-all, technological hype in a long line of technological hype — some successful (2G, 3G, 4G), some not (have you seen a 3D TV lately?)  AI is not a new technology; researchers have been exploring AI since the early days of computing. But, thanks to the exponential growth of the chip industry, as predicted so presciently by Gordon Moore in 1965, AI has come on the scene now only because computers are finally powerful enough — at everyday prices — to actually run the computation necessary to implement "AI."

And those "proactive … decisions" are just based on statistics and probability: the computer has seen something X times in concert with Y, and thus when it sees X, it will — "proactively" — predict Y. Yes, there is regularity in the world; the sun has risen very often in the past, and AI will predict that the sun will rise tomorrow. But, AI would not have predicted Moore’s Law.  There was limited empirical evidence available for Moore to use. Rather, Moore based his prediction on his deep understanding of where technology was headed.

We apologize for sounding like curmudgeons! We truly believe that a bet against technological change is a really bad bet; new digital technologies will be invented and they will enable dramatic transformations. But, while AI may have finally conquered the game of Go and bested our best human player, diagnosing disease, predicting financial — and weather — changes, etc. are highly challenging and will require our absolutely best thinking and absolutely best technology. These are early days for AI; we urge patience and caution.

Let’s move on!  Digital transformation isn’t just about technology!  In all the articles about DX, the key issue is people, organizational culture, and leadership:

  • "Hire the right people to bring about change. Create a culture that makes data-based decisions."
  • "… success requires CEOs to develop the right leadership capabilities, workforce skills and corporate cultures to support digital transformation …"
  • "Digitally maturing companies cultivate a culture that supports change and attracts talent. Commitment and leadership are required. To succeed, you have to be dedicated to investment, change, talent development, and have a clear vision … and be committed to it."

Concluding Remarks

DX – digital transformation – is no easy thing to pull off!

  • "… despite decades of investments in IT infrastructure, very few companies say they’re hitting the mark."
  • "… determining what digital transformation means for any given organization, laying out a roadmap to get there and then achieving a meaningful level of transformation is no small feat."
  • "Surveys suggest that most organizations are still in the early stages of this transformation."

So, why, even after years of experience with digital technologies, is DX so hard to do?

But pulling off DX successfully is a must:

  • "… all companies must transform to be digital companies to remain competitive."

Digital transformation — DX — will increasingly become a force in the business world. So, where is K-12 on its path to digital transformation? We will explore that question in Part 2 of this essay.