The Competitive Spirit

In the business world, firms are always attempting to develop a competitive advantage over their competitors. A competitive advantage suggests that a firm is doing something that is distinctive and cannot be duplicated by others.

With that as background, I observed two events in the last 24 hours that have me thinking about competitive advantage…and worried about our country.

First, I had an engaging and energetic asynchronous discussion with my online class last night. This graduate class consists of a group of K-12 teachers working on the masters in education. Through a discussion board, we were “discussing” the merits of Web 2.0 applications in the classroom, as well as the negative aspects of allowing younger children to go online unsupervised. These two topics generated over 100 postings in two days from ten people! The synopsis from these teachers was that schools were forced to block access to web sites to prevent kids from going to unsavory sites…and that these blockages impacted their ability as teachers to model behavior on the internet or highlight new knowledge from web sites they might have discovered at home – only to find blocked once they returned to the classroom. Some of their frustrations lay in the seemingly arbitrary way that different schools and school boards locked down the web, including no differentiation of rights and privileges between teachers and students and limited policy on getting a website approved.

In fact, most of my graduate students cannot access the social bookmarking site I am using in this class due to its being blocked by the county.

So that was on my mind when I came to work this morning. There, I talked with a colleague who had just completed a Skype call with friends in Asia. They were discussing an innovative program being set up in Bangkok where both teacher and student use of Web 2.0 applications will be the norm. Jeff Utecht of Learning 2.0 is involved, and I have already seen some innovative uses he has made of Ning social networking, Twitter, and digital video. As I listened to my colleague, the excitement he felt was palpable.

A side discussion last night with my students involved Tom Friedman’s book, The World is Flat. Tom recently discussed his latest edition in this MIT video. One of my favorite quotes from his book was:

When I was growing up, my parents used to say to me: ‘Finish your dinner—people in China are starving.’ I, by contrast, find myself wanting to say to my daughters: ‘Finish your homework—people in China and India are starving for your job.’

These two events 12 hours apart brought home to me the digital gap emerging with children around the world. Children in this country attend schools that restrict access to the very tools that they will need to be competitive, while children in Asia gain expertise with these very tools. Now granted, the percentage of children in Asia that have access to this wired environment is small, but as that wonderful SlideShow “Shift Happens” noted last year, a small percentage of honors Asian children still outnumber our total school population. As Tom Friedman’s quote suggests, we should be worried about these gifted Asians with high digital literacy skills.

The last 12 hours have brought into focus for me the fact that our diligent efforts to protect our kids in our public schools in many ways simply removes the competitive advantage that they ought to have, growing up in this wonderful nation. As the PBS Special, Growing Up Online, pointed out – the kids know how to take care of themselves and are hungry to use these tools. Our policies across this nation need to relax and give our kids access to the skills they will need to be competitive in a global economy.