Ecotones, Disintermediation, & and Educational Crossroads

An ecotone is a transition area between two biomes. It is where two communities meet and integrate.It may be narrow or wide, and it may be local (the zone between a field and forest) or regional (the transition between forest and grassland ecosystems). An ecotone may appear on the ground as a gradual blending of the two communities across a broad area, or it may manifest itself as a sharp boundary line.

The word ecotone was coined from a combination of eco(logy) plus -tone, from the Greek tonos or tension – in other words, a place where ecologies are in tension.
From Wikipedia     9/29/16

One of my favorite observations while a Teacher in Residence at the University of New Hampshire was…

…following a high school environmental science teacher and his class for a year while studying ecotones and bug life on the many acres of school grounds  consisting of streams of water, old growth forests, and natural overgrown fields. Encroaching  the natural were athletic playing fields treated with an assortment of chemicals for maintenance; parking areas treated with salt during the winter; and a cut-through with high tension wires running along the edge of the property.  While they took samples of bug life in the different areas over time, the real interesting findings were which species survived and ultimately lived in the ecotones as a blended environment; where field met stream, forest met athletic fields, etc.

These days, using ecotones as a metaphor, education is experiencing a sense of being caught in an ecotone of the 20th Century practices of education which still predominates school cultures and the 21st Century where technology is providing possibilities for flexibilities of time, of pace and of place that is changing the landscape of what schools and school will look like going forward.  The interesting questions for me are: Who and what will survive going forward?  What will the blending of the past and future look like as virtual options and personalization become the norm?…and What will educators need to do or how will they need to change in order to survive as the ecotone of a fading 20th century model fades and is more dominated by 21st century possibilities?  The inevitable change is where the notion of the disintermediation of public schools enters the discussion.

Over ten years ago, Paul Houston, the former Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators wrote, “Our public schools are being disintermediated. The definition being when a new technology replaces or overrides an older institution.”  One of the earliest examples of this was Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the early 1430’s.  Gutenberg unharnessed the world of ideas on the world and was deemed the most influential figure of the last millennium by a group of professors and journalists who authored a book, 1.000 years,1,000 people.

The printing press allowed the Bible to be mass produced and people no longer needed to go to church to receive religious doctrine.  Religious institutions more decentralized and greater numbers of people rejected formalized religion altogether. We know this change didn’t occur overnight and it takes a historical perspective to understand the long-term impact the printing press has had on society. But, this example brings us to the current challenge schools are experiencing with current technology that is so quickly impacting schools.

The impact  of technology on schools resulting in the disintermediation of schools as we know and have experienced them can be seen on a number of fronts ranging from specialized, free options like Khan Academy to virtual schools to personalized learning environments that occur outside the walls of a classroom. Like the example of the printing press and church institutions, students don’t need to come to school for the information, so we must think and act around the question of, “why will students come to school?“.  Ignoring the question will lead to the disintermediation of public schools…examples of this can be seen across the country as charter schools, private corporate supported schools, and home schooling become more widely accessed.

A form of Disruptive Innovation Theory described in Clayton Christensen’s et al’s  book, Disrupting Class, shows quite clearly how disintermediation is playing out today in public schools along with their metrics indicating that 50% of high school seats will be delivered online before 2020 and that number increases to 80 % by 2024…less than 10 years from now!  In studying the numbers since the publication of their book and anecdotally, I would lean toward those online numbers being met earlier than predicted rather than later.

States with successful public virtual schools like New Hampshire and Florida, are primed to exceed those percentages if past results are any indication.  Both New Hampshire’s school, VLACS(; and Florida ( have experienced exponential growth that is primarily student driven.  Their models though have supported transitioning environments and professional development opportunities in brick and mortar schools as well.  Over an eight year period VLACS has grown from 450 to close to 30.000 enrollments. Consistent with Disruptive Innovation Theory  the majority of those 30,000 enrollments are an example of the virtual innovation and personalization possibilities making their way back into the traditional school setting….the forming of a technological ecotone blending the schools most adults have known with the schools that they will need to come to know and understand.

Hopefully, the landscape is now set for the ecotone I’d this blog to create and support.  One that will blend technology, literacy and collaboration across the broad area of virtual and brick & mortar learning environments that must coexist to varying degrees to support the 21st Century teacher and learner.  Why will students come to school in 2024 and what will”school” look like?  They are important questions to consider and I found the series of Shift Happens Videos interesting to initiate conversations around these questions.  One of my favorite versions is:

Shift Happens Original




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