Be Netflix, not Blockbuster

Eric Sheninger

Author of books such as Learning Transformed, Eric Sheninger is a senior fellow and thought leader on digital leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Prior to this he was the award-winning Principal at New Milford High School. Under his leadership his school became a globally recognised model for innovative practices. Eric oversaw the successful implementation of several sustainable change initiatives that radically transformed the learning culture at his school while increasing achievement.

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Image credit: Flickr // Janus Kohl Andersen. Image credit: Flickr // Janus Kohl Andersen.

Education is ripe for disruptive change, leading to innovative practices that improve learning outcomes for our students. What might have worked in the past will not necessarily have the same impact today, as the world has changed dramatically in a short period of time. It’s safe to say that the seismic shifts we are witnessing as a result of technological advances will continue to reshape our world in ways that we could never have imagined. Disruption has become commonplace in the new world, and organisations have moved from adaptation to evolution in order to not only survive, but more importantly, thrive.

We can learn many lessons from the past about change and disruptive leadership, as certain organisations have embraced innovative ideas while changing the way in which they learn. Let’s take a walk down memory lane to see firsthand “Remember Blockbuster? Where are they today?”some powerful examples of disruptive innovation in action. Remember the days when many of us had a Blockbuster video card? If you didn’t have one, you couldn’t rent a VHS tape of your favourite movie. If you did, the joy of watching the latest movie release was often squashed upon our arrival to the store, as all the copies were quickly rented out. This didn’t change much when we saw the shift from VHS to DVD. So where is Blockbuster today?

Many of you know the answer to this question already, and know that Netflix caused the demise of Blockbuster. Netflix was willing to innovate and change the way they learned. No brick and mortar stores, DVDs by mail, and eventually streaming video. Blockbuster never really knew what hit them until it was too late. The innovative ideas embraced and employed by Netflix were much more consumer-friendly. They also aligned nicely with the technological changes that were occurring. The stubbornness and shortsightedness of Blockbuster, along with their unwillingness to move away from business as usual, resulted in their ultimate demise.

Let’s look at another example. How many of us had a Blackberry as our first smartphone? I sure did, and many of my friends still make fun of me for it as I held on a bit longer than most. Well, the story of Blackberry ended just about the same way as Blockbuster. Apple and Steve Jobs disrupted the smartphone business with the iPhone. Not only did the iPhone decimate Blackberry, forever knocking it off the pedestal as the gold-standard device, but it also sparked the smartphone wars. Virtually every touchscreen smartphone device today has come to us thanks to the iPhone. This is another example of a willingness to innovate, resulting in a fundamental change to learning.

Here is one final example that is unfolding right before our eyes. The taxicab industry has been steadfast in their opposition to change. Any attempts to innovate are now futile, as Uber seized on an industry that was not very consumer-friendly. Uber owns no physical cars, yet is valued at around 48 billion dollars. Anyone can get a ride using a consumer-friendly app to hail a ride for a fraction of the cost of a cab. In some cities you can even order food, helicopters, and jets. Don’t think for a minute that Uber is waiting around for the next disrupter to come along and eradicate their business model. They truly understand the nature of disruptive innovation and change, and are committed to being ahead of the curve. They are doing so by investing in driverless cars. Their commitment to embracing innovative ideas and relentless pursuit of learning will keep them relevant for a long time.

There are powerful lessons schools can learn from the above stories of disruptive innovation. In many ways I see similarities between schools and our education system to Blockbuster, Blackberry, and the taxicab industry. Even though there has been incremental “System change has been hard to come by.”change resulting in some isolated pockets of excellence in schools across the world, system change has been hard to come by. By employing disruptive strategies we can begin the process of creating a more relevant learning culture for our students. If we don’t, history has already provided a glimpse as to what might happen.

Don’t prepare students for something. Prepare them for anything!

Disruptive innovation compels educators to go against the flow, challenge the status quo, take on the resistance, and shift our thinking in a more growth-oriented way. Thus, it is imperative that teaching, learning, and leadership change. In Learning Transformed, my co-author Tom Murray and I lay out eight research-based and evidence-driven keys to make this a reality. They are as follows:

Key #1: Leadership and school culture lay the foundation.
Key #2: The learning experience must be redesigned and made personal.
Key #3: Decisions must be grounded in evidence and driven by a Return on Instruction (ROI).
Key #4: Learning spaces must become learner-centered.
Key #5: Professional learning must be relevant, engaging, ongoing, and made personal.
Key #6: Technology must be leveraged and used as an accelerant for student learning.
Key #7: Community collaboration and engagement must be woven into the fabric of a school’s culture.
Key #8: Schools that transform learning are built to last as financial, political, and pedagogical sustainability ensure long-term success.

Disruptive leadership will lead to disruptive innovation. If we hang on to the same type of thinking we will continue to get the same old results...or worse. This is why digital leadership is so important in a time of rapid change. There is time to go down the path less travelled and create systems of excellence that will be embraced by our learners, and in turn better prepare them for their future. Think differently. Learn differently. Disrupt the system as we know it by embracing a business as unusual model. Let’s create a new normal.

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