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OPINION: Who Needs Learning Relationship Management? We All Do

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People really can’t learn well without relationships. Sure, they can process information and take standardized tests, but a mind by itself can only answer its own questions and is rarely, if ever, inspired.

Even four-year-olds get the importance of people to learning. When you ask them what their favorite part of school is, they always talk about their friends, teachers and the parents who volunteer.

So where did we lose our way? Faced with catastrophic dropout rates, failing grades on international examinations, and an Adderall-fueled lost generation of boomerang students moving back into mom’s basement, that’s the question we are left asking ourselves.

Folks put the blame in many different laps. It’s either our national obsession with standardized tests, low teacher pay, unions, or the dissolution of the family. But I think it’s a lot simpler than that. I think it comes down to relationships.

We’ve stripped relationships out of schools for the sake of efficiency, making them cold, transactional and unmotivating. People just don’t learn like that. To ensure that every student has the mentors, coaches, and communities that they need, we need Learning Relationship Management (LRM).

Nobody set out to destroy the relational nature of schools, of course. It came about like so many problems, because people were trying to fix something in one place and the fix broke something else.

Let’s go back a generation or two. Our forbearers were working to expand access to education to an entire diverse society for the first time. The numbers of people to be educated grew as we integrated schools (forcibly) and finally set expectations that girls would receive just as rigorous an education as boys.

All of those were critical turning points, but to scale education as never before, schools needed systems. The architects drew upon industrial organizational theory and, in building our industrial system of education, forgot what our four-year-olds know: Learning doesn’t work without relationships. In other words, we built a system that is devoid of the very thing that most supports human growth.

It’s not that people care less about each other now than they used to. There are just a lot more students in education than there used to be and there’s a lot less personal ownership. Professors, teachers, administrators and counselors are human beings, and there is a limit to how many people with whom they can have strong relationships.

In the early 1990s another relationship-based human activity, sales, was being stymied because people couldn’t maintain all the relationships they needed. Tom Siebel invented Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software to help salespeople build and maintain the relationships that they needed to be successful. CRM took off because it allowed salespeople to do what they’d always done, but to do it much faster and with more customers. That’s exactly what we need to do in education, and schools know it.

Over the last couple years, a lot of schools have started to use CRMs for education purposes. They’ve done it because their LMSs and SIS’s aren’t getting the job done. It’s a great idea that works well in marketing, but not so well in learning. CRM is built to drive sales, and it treats customers like passive contacts to be acted upon by the sales people. But learning is active, not passive, and the learner herself is the primary agent in her own education, not just the subject of other people’s agency.

In education, we don’t need CRM. We need a new category of tools--Learning Relationship Management--to:

  • make sure that each student has a personal learning plan that aligns with their long-term ambition for life
  • enable mentors, coaches, advisors, and instructors to collaborate to help students succeed.
  • provide for digital learning communities that strengthen informal learning
  • ensure that each student has exactly what they need to reach their goals
  • allow schools to connect better and more relevant content to their students
  • allow schools to connect with industry to make sure that learners are ready to be productive and self-sufficient upon graduation

As Linda Baer and John Campbell point out in the 2012 book, Game Changers:

“One could imagine future analytical tools coming together in a "learning relationship management" (LRM) system that would be open to faculty and advisors. The system would not only provide a central point for analytics data, but would also provide a way of tracking interventions and related results. The LRM system would provide a comprehensive foundation for end-to-end student support.”

LMSs don’t cut it because they put the classroom at the center, not the students and their goals. CRM doesn’t cut it because it has no role for students to manage their own relationships. It’s time to move beyond Baer’s & Campbell’s admirable imagination and make Learning Relationship Management a reality--now.

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