Last night there was some chatter on Twitter about news that The World’s First LEGO School Set to Open in Denmark! It’s an interesting idea with a goal to include “LEGO’s emphasis on fun and playful engagement.” The question came up, as it invariably does, “what does the company want to get out of it?” Even though the funding is coming from the LEGO Foundation and not the LEGO Group it is lost to few that the LEGO Foundation owns 25% of the company it gets it name from.
We tend to suspect companies of selfish motives in most education related transactions these days. I think this is because we tend to think in zero sum terms – if it is good for the company it must be bad for education. A number of companies who produce educational materials including books, exams and supplemental teaching resources have come under criticism for their products from educators. Of course other educators embrace the products and support their use. Sometimes they face criticism for that as well. I’m not so sure this is always fair. Sometimes it is of course but often I see cases of tools being criticized for being used incorrectly or otherwise not up to their potential. But back to companies.
I spent 9 years working in industry where my job was defined mostly as getting educators to use the company’s products in education. Mostly I was able to give those products away for free (which is a pretty good price). I was promoting products that for the most part I had actually used with some success in my own classrooms. As new products came along I looked carefully at their educational value and suitability and promoted only those products I believed in. Was there something in it for the company? Why yes!
Though not so much in the short term. It is expensive to give away software for free. Students do not get to pick what software they use when they first get jobs out of high school or even university. It was a long term play. I used to describe my job as being the in “make friends and influence people” business with emphasis on make friends. The big short term benefit, as I saw it, was to the schools who took advantage of programs and opportunities for students to learn with and about state of the art professional software. Plus a lot of teacher developed and Microsoft funded curriculum.
Today I see a number of companies doing work to support computer science education with even less of a direct or short term benefit. Dan Kasun, one of the Microsoft execs I really respect, wrote about his work with the TEALS program and why he sees it as important recently. (Thoughts on the TEALS High School Computer Science Field Trip) Not much “all about Microsoft” in that program. While some of the courses being taught do use Microsoft technology a lot the teaching is the APCS course which is all about Java. Arguably teaching APCS is counter to Microsoft’s goals and greater good. So why do it? Because it is good for society.
It’s not bad for Microsoft of course. A well trained, smart tech savvy population means more potential hires and customers. But that is also a long term good and not the short term quick win many people associate with big companies.
Google is another large company spending some good money on CS education. They have been sponsoring CS4HS and the CSTA Annual Conference ( though not this year unfortunately) for a number of years. My understanding is that this year they have moved a lot of money into supporting pilot programs for the new CS Principles course. I see that as a badly needed shot in the arm for high school computer science BTW.
Google also funded development of App Inventor for Android and provided continuing funding when they handed it over to MIT. While one can argue that the benefit from having more students buying and programming for Android phones that is still not a major mover in a huge smart phone market. It’s pretty cool and useful for educators though! I doubt that Google will make enough money directly attributable to App Inventor to fully justify its expense. But in the long term Google, like Microsoft, benefits from more smart people going into computer science.
Hard to put on a balance sheet though and trust me if it doesn’t show on a balance sheet a lot of companies will just not do it.
So what does LEGO get out of this school? Well they talk about building a school so good that it brings smart people to the area. That’s a win. They may sell some more LEGO blocks but only if the educational value proves to be real. Ultimately they benefit from more smart creative people and then only if it all works. Any blocks they sell is just icing on the cake.