The New York Times this week reported on another “digital transformation” going off the rails. This one happened in the $432 billion market for “smart learning and education.”

It involves Summit Learning, a fast-growing, online “personalized learning” platform from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy. Summit Learning is now being used by around 330 schools, 2,450 teachers, and 54,230 students in 40 states and the District of Columbia, Summit claims.

The Silicon Valley-based program promotes an educational approach which uses online tools to customize education. It’s “based on collaborations with nationally acclaimed learning scientists, researchers and academics from institutions including the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research,” Summit’s website says.

Eight months ago, according to the Times, public schools near Wichita, Kansas rolled out Summit Learning. The Times piece sets the stage with this passage:

Many families in the Kansas towns, which have grappled with underfunded public schools and deteriorating test scores, initially embraced the change. Under Summit’s program, students spend much of the day on their laptops and go online for lesson plans and quizzes, which they complete at their own pace. Teachers assist students with the work, hold mentoring sessions and lead special projects. The platform is free to schools. The laptops are typically bought separately.

Then, students started coming home with headaches and hand cramps. Some said they felt more anxious. One child began having a recurrence of seizures. Another asked to bring her dad’s hunting earmuffs to class to block out classmates because work was now done largely alone.

“We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies,” said Tyson Koenig, a factory supervisor in McPherson, who visited his son’s fourth-grade class. In October, he pulled the 10-year-old out of the school.

People -- students, students interacting with teachers in a classroom setting -- were not the organizing idea in the Summit narrative; making the learning experience "digital" was. It also appears that input from the students and teachers themselves was not a factor in the experience design. The sunny end state was assumed. So then the roadmap becomes conceptualized around the mechanics of tech functionality and efficiency from life spent online.

Which is what technology wants.

The parallels to what’s unfolding across the $7 trillion system of markets defined as healthcare are uncanny. HCP burnout and administrative burden from electronic health records is now a major theme; patient-provider interaction (the human touch) is a top priority for health consumers; “digital” + drug discovery is reinforcing the status quo; and U.S. healthcare has been in crisis mode for the past 50 years, ranking last among among 11 countries for outcomes, equity and quality.

Burning Down the Schoolhouse

Durable outcomes tend to get lost in the scramble when you’re trying to survive an “education revolution” that’s going to destroy your market TODAY. Technology creates pressure to not be left behind. It sells on the quality of illusion and future vision, of life and living better imagined through the lens of “digital.”

Captured perfectly by Thomas Friedman in his opinion piece, “Revolution Hits the Universities,” in late 2013:

“Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.”


“Home-study programs, whether delivered through mailboxes or TVs, CD-ROMS or websites, have played an important role in expanding access to education and training,” wrote Nicholas Carr in Utopia is Creepy. “But, despite a century of outsized promises, the technologies of distance learning have had little effect on traditional schooling. Colleges, in particular, still look and work pretty much as they always have. Maybe that’s because the right technology hasn’t come along yet. Or maybe it’s because classroom teaching, for all it’s flaws and inefficiencies, has strengths we either don’t grasp or are quick to dismiss.”

Which is the conclusion reached by a Pennsylvania junior high school last week. The school board decided to pull the plug on Summit Learning after less than a year.

“At this point there is declining interest, we couldn’t sustain it with the staff, and our other class sizes are rising,” said District Superintendent Michael Vuckovich. “And we weren’t offering a program with the fidelity it should have had, so I made the recommendation … and we decided to end it.

“This did not fail because of teachers. Not at all. The teachers we have are amazing and we’re proud of the work they do. They put their heart and soul into making it work, but it was a difficult decision and it wasn’t made lightly.”

The move restores all students in the junior high to traditional learning from teachers’ lectures and textbook lessons.

(Massive) Failure Rates from Digitally-Led Visions

The real-world experience that unfolds from going digital reflects the larger story of magic and loss most have when it comes to buying the Silicon Valley line: “platforms” and artificial intelligence will revolutionize and render obsolete everything in its wake.

The digitization of the global economy has had many effects on businesses, markets and global enterprises, but few are more significant than the overwhelming desire to undergo some form of transformation and achieve some sort of technological Eden. Companies and industries are under tremendous, albeit misleading, pressure to undergo this process lest they be left in the past. But digital transformation failure rates have become a major problem: a whopping 84% of companies fail to achieve digital transformation.

That’s close to $1 trillion in waste and investments misaligned or not meeting objectives.

Poor strategy is expensive. Regardless of industry, the essential design point is this: you organize technology around people, not people around technology. Most "digital transformations” get the story backward.

/ jgs