Utility: Electricity, Water, Internet…Learner?

by Ryan Krohn, Director

Utility : u·til·i·ty

noun: the state of being useful, value, profitable, advantageous, or beneficial.

adjective: useful, especially through being able to perform several functions.

A utility refers to services consumed by the public such as electricity, natural gas, and water. When these are in place and are a part of our expectation, we plan and make decisions based on the assumptions of dependability and availability. The concept of expecting or depending on a utility is simple, but the potential implications can be transformational.

About ten years ago, I had a perspective changing conversation, based on a simple idea. I had a meeting with Steve, an Instructional Technology Leader, where I asked a question: “What do you see as a vision for the role IT will play in learning?” Steve responded with a simple, yet effective message: “We will create a system where we expect a technology infrastructure, in the same way we wake up to expect electricity and heat in our schools.”

The vision of technology infrastructure included ideas such as wireless, one-to-one, expected access to resources, and communication. In this decade old example, internet access (including the technology tools to utilize it) were not yet included in the educational system’s “utility” profile.  

Learner Utility
As utilities make their way into the lives of the community, our reliance on them increases and ultimately a system is created on a foundation of dependability for the utility. Schools today depend on the traditional public utilities, and most have found ways to create dependability with technology and the internet. In a personalized learning environment however, we see another resource beginning to emerge: the learner.

When we think about learners as a resource, a number of powerful ideas emerge:

  • Learners support their own learning.
  • Learners share commitment and accountability.
  • Learners bring talents and gifts.
  • Learners are goal setters, action planners, and reveal evidence of learning.
  • Learners exhibit self-efficacy.
  • Learners have voice and choice.
  • Learners monitor progress and assess their work.

These ideas are powerful and reveal a shift in the role of the learner, the educator, and even the function/design of school itself. Each day in personalized learning classrooms across the country, there are more and more examples where learners are expected to play the role of an active participant. The shift is from students simply following adult direction and complying with established processes and structures, to students learning because they see value, meaning and purpose, and choose to make a commitment. The shift creates a foundation, the learner capitalizes on the experience.

Building the Learner Infrastructure
There is an important point in time that exists when people are beginning to see value in a new utility, and when a system needs to take action to ensure its dependability. That point in time is marked by the decision on whether to make an investment in building the infrastructure to support the newly valued utility. In terms of water, gas, energy, and internet, these infrastructures are deliberately built, maintained, and improved year after year. This aspect is critical to understand as we begin to see the learner as a utility, as it will require an investment in the learner’s “infrastructure.”

Educators in personalized learning settings who have made this investment speak of the intensive amount of time they initially pour into building this foundation. In terms of school, an investment of time can be seen as expensive to use, especially when content delivery has historically been the dominant use of time. The infrastructure required to reliably produce and deliver a product such as electricity or water is very expensive to build and maintain. But in each case – water or learners – it is critical to understand the potential, and realized, value of the utility.  

Educators that want to invest their time in content delivery are placing a value on that interchange of information/ideas. A shift to spend some of that time investing in the learner will push on the value of content delivery, and ultimately will require a value shift. Investment in the learner will require an intentional and consistent approach to build their skills and dispositions (infrastructure). Once established, learners will be positioned as a utility, a valuable resource we can count on!