Julia Freeland Fisher’s new book Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks explores how schools can invest in the power of relationships to break the pattern of inequality in American classrooms. In this excerpt, Fisher describes how technology has the potential to help students develop social capital.
When President George W. Bush rolled out his flagship 2001 No Child Left Behind Education Act, his vision was seemingly simple: by measuring student outcomes and requiring that chronically underperforming schools improve, we could successfully close stubborn racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps by 2014.
What students knew—or didn’t know—sat at the core of this vision. When Bush signed the bill he insisted that schools needed to focus on the basics. “Every school has a job to do,” he said. “And that’s to teach the basics and teach them well. If we want to make sure no child is left behind, every child must learn to read. And every child must learn to add and subtract.”
The federal law, in other words, squarely focused on nailing basic proficiency in literacy and numeracy. Years later, despite modest improvement—and a few pockets of great success—schools are still scrambling to meet this charge, particularly those serving high poverty and minority populations. Meanwhile, political battles wage over precisely what standards states should aim to meet and the best methods of teaching to get us there. In short, schools and society remain intently focused on what students know.
This focus suffers from a critical blind spot. With everyone talking about what our students do and don’t know, no one is talking about whom students know. A child’s network—his reservoir of social capital and ability to bank on that capital for support, advice, or opportunities down the line—remains largely determined by random luck: the luck of where children are born, whom their parents know, and whom they happen to end up sitting next to in class.
Today, even under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, our education system focuses the majority of its energy on getting better and better at delivering and measuring what students know. Policies and norms have largely eclipsed whom students know from our education agenda. The system in turn vastly undervalued children and young adults’ access to meaningful networks, which leads to stark gaps in access to mentors, supportive adults, industry experts and diverse peer groups. As a result, advantageous connections, formal and informal mentors, peer networks, and exposure to professions and professionals reside in exclusive networks that children access by sheer luck of the draw.
It bears noting that schools are not causing these gaps. Rather, by design they do little to resolve them. Children’s immediate community—not merely their school—holds a monopoly on their network. Schools, however, institutionalize this monopoly by closing rather than opening their doors to people beyond what John Dewey dubbed schools’ “embryonic community.”
The potential to disrupt opportunity gaps
But disruptive innovations are beginning to emerge that will reshape how schools can connect students to coaches, mentors, experts, and peers. These innovations stand to radically expand students’ access to social capital down the line. Online coaching, mentoring, and tutoring programs are beginning to penetrate schools and homes. Online peer networks—sometimes seen merely as social networks for sharing silly photos or vapid life updates—are increasingly used to connect students to additional resources otherwise out of reach.
And inside of classrooms themselves, students are starting to interact with real-life experts from a wealth of industries using video chats and social learning platforms. Finally, new human capital management systems—modeled on two-sided platforms that align new channels of supply and demand, like Uber and eBay—are beginning to unlock a latent supply of local experts, community members, and supportive adults who can slot into schools. In light of these innovations, how students connect—to one another, to their teachers, and to new adult mentors, industry experts, and role models—stands to shift dramatically in the coming decades. These innovations in turn stand to disrupt the limitations ingrained in all students’ inherited networks.
These developments are truly remarkable if we consider how unimaginable they were only a few decades ago. Historically, limited communications and transportation infrastructure made it difficult—if not logistically impossible—for schools to function as networking hubs. As a result, students’ access to networks has remained strictly bound by time and space.
Tight-knit school communities were not the only ones subject to these strict limitations. For decades, large-scale mentoring efforts like Big Brothers Big Sisters have required specific time commitments when mentors can meet in-person with mentees—a requirement that on the one hand vastly limits its ability to recruit volunteers and on the other makes mentorship a strictly local phenomenon. This poses challenges to quality and scale—quality because the costs of recruiting and retaining first-rate non-teacher volunteers is high, and scale because geographic and time limitations cap the number of feasible relationships and interactions at programs’ disposal. As a result, an estimated one in three children will grow up without a mentor.
Innovating toward relationships
With the rise of technology, however, new tools and networking models stand to break these limitations. Technology can dramatically expand young people’s access to and ability to maintain relationships with new and diverse adults and peers. Online communication tools can reach beyond geographic boundaries to forge new connections, as well as strengthen and better coordinate existing networks in their immediate communities.
With all sorts of familiar tools that have been steadily improving over the past decades—email, texting, video chatting—and even newer technologies—matching algorithms, virtual reality and artificial intelligence—students will be able to connect and form relationships more often and with more supportive adults and peers than ever before.
In case that sounds like a bleak future mediated by screens, fear not. These opportunities are also emerging through new school designs that facilitate in-person relationships more deliberately and frequently. Disruptive innovations, in other words, will not just digitize students’ social lives. Rather, innovations are starting to unlock a whole new choreography of care and opportunity across school communities, both face-to-face and online.
This networked model of education will not come about merely from existing social networking tools. Popular platforms–like Facebook and LinkedIn–tend to simply amplify students’ offline networks and tendencies, rather than forging new, different, or expanded networks. Indeed a whopping 93 percent of Facebook “friends” know each other in real life.  Instead, a new breed of edtech tools that connect students are being curated and designed in an effort to expand student networks to new corners of their communities and the globe. These new relationships and networks can in turn yield valuable headway in evening the playing field of students’ opportunities and expanding their sense of what is possible.
For example, consider Zachary, a Jamaican-born teen, who moved to the United States with his family when he was 16 years old. His high school in New York matched students with mentors using iMentor, an organization that provides a platform and curriculum that blends virtual and face-to-face mentoring. Zachary was paired with Eric, senior lawyer with the General Counsel Division of Credit Suisse. The two collaborated on the iMentor curriculum through weekly email exchanges and in-person meetings. Eric helped Zachary not only to study for the SAT, but also to build his resume, seek out summer enrichment experiences, and research college opportunities beyond his radar. In the spring of 2013, Zachary was accepted to his top-choice school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
We all have heard inspiring stories like these. What’s unique about Zachary’s story is not that a helpful adult could get him one step closer to college or that mentorship programs could successfully forge relationships across class and race lines. Crucially, it’s the model that underlies this relationship that marks important innovation: the iMentor model leverages technology to make relationships like Zachary and Eric’s far more tenable and scalable in terms of both cost and geography. The two could keep in touch with far more regularity between in-person meetings and Eric could track Zachary’s progress against his goals in a more reliable way. 
At the same time, innovations are starting to expand students’ connections long before the college application gauntlet. In her elementary school classroom in the small rural town of Royse City, Texas, teacher Kelly Margot decided to break out of the four walls of her science class. She used a tool called Nepris, which offers access to industry experts over video. Margot ported a neurologist into her classroom during a lesson on the human brain. For some students, the brief connection fueled new academic interests. “[The next day] a student came in fired up about his next research idea over cures for neurological issues. The expert told the kids what happens in the brain that causes autism. This kid wants to know what is being done to fix it,” Margot said. For other students, Margot witnessed a different spark ignite. Her students who had not travelled beyond the Texas borders were thrilled by the chance to see the New York City skyline outside of the neurologist’s office. 
The power of technology tools, in other words, is not to just digitize existing relationships between young people and adults. Instead, these tools stand to bust through the ceiling that geography and time have long held over networks. In turn, new tools are beginning to both strengthen students’ connections and diversify their horizons.
Different connections offer different value
For many, such online connections may sound cursory at best. But sociology research into the value of relationships has revealed that different sorts of relationships tend to offer different sorts of value.
One of the key metrics that researchers use to gauge the potential value of a given relationship is its strength. The strength or weakness of a given relationship—or “tie,” in the language of sociologists—depends on the amount of time, emotional intensity, intimacy, and reciprocity that two people share. Not surprisingly, one way researchers cast strong ties is by identifying people who repeatedly interact with and rely on one another. A close family member or spouse with whom you live or a dear friend on whom you rely is a strong tie. On the other hand, a friend with whom you’ve kept in sporadic contact or a local business owner whom you see on occasion is a weak tie.
Not all strong ties are positive ties, of course. But to develop and thrive, research has long shown that all people, and young people in particular, need positive strong ties. The value of these close ties, in particular in-person ties, cannot be overstated—they predict all sorts of life outcomes like happiness, health, and even longevity. 
Those working in education witness firsthand the power of strong ties in their daily work with young people. Even a single strong, caring tie can prove especially important for at-risk youth. And more generally, students who experience a web of strong, positive relationships—be those with family, teachers, or mentors—get better grades, have higher aspirations, and engage in college-preparatory activities more frequently. 
Strong ties, however, are not the only sort of relationships that bestow value in our lives. Our strong ties often help us to get by. But they alone may not suffice when it comes to getting ahead. 
The somewhat counterintuitive truth is that although our close-knit relationships are more likely to look out for us, they may be less likely to provide us with new information or opportunities. Within a tightly-knit group of close friends or family members, group members actually end up knowing the same people. These redundant ties in turn offer redundant resources.  People in a tight-knit group know about the same information and opportunities as one another. They often exist in an echo chamber.
Instead, it turns out that more tenuous or “weak” ties, which are by definition more plentiful in our lives, can offer up new opportunities or information.
Researchers did not always understand the pivotal role that weak tie acquaintances could play in people’s lives. For a long time, conventional wisdom held that the stronger the relationship, the better. But in the early 1970s, sociologist Mark Granovetter of Johns Hopkins University set out to study how social interactions impacted social mobility. To do so, he surveyed a random sample of people living in a Boston suburb who had gotten their jobs through a personal contact. To his surprise, he found that over half of the employees said they only occasionally interacted with the contact who helped them secure their new job. 
Granovetter realized the powerful role that merely occasional contacts were playing: job seekers’ weak ties could offer new information beyond the knowledge confined to candidates’ own strong-tie networks. Observing this dynamic, Granovetter coined the catchphrase “the strength of weak ties.” This truth will resonate with anyone who has gone out looking for a job. Although a lucky few may benefit directly from a parent or close friend offering them a position, many will find themselves asking for introduction upon introduction until a series of ever-looser ties brings a new opportunity within reach.
It bears noting that ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ ties offer a mental model for thinking about gradations of connections. But sorting our relationships into these buckets can also risk oversimplifying the more jagged realities of our social lives. But research into the range of value that different relationships offer suggests that schools would be wise to explore the power of all sorts of ties–both weak and strong–in students lives. In the classroom described above, for instance, Margot’s students enjoyed the benefit of a brief, new connection far beyond their existing networks who could lend them new information and a new perspective into his work–and the city he inhabited.
A networked school
Schools looking to shore up students’ networks will need to tackle both ends of this strong- and weak-tie spectrum, taking into account the many nuances in between. They will need to ensure that students have access to strong ties who help them get by emotionally, physically, financially, and academically. They will also, however, need to think creatively about expanding students’ access to weak ties who might broaden the range of possibilities on students’ horizons and open the door to new opportunities and connections. For the latter, new technologies hold a competitive advantage, allowing for affordable and accessible connections across diverse populations, in brief spurts, and across space and time.
Many in education may hear this as yet another job being piled on top of already cash-strapped and busy schools. Given persistent academic achievement gaps, might it be prudent to just heed Bush’s vision and go back to basics? Ought schools really aim to do even more, when nailing basic literacy and numeracy remains insurmountable for so many?
Yes, they should. Growing students’ networks, it turns out, could prove instrumental in solving chronic challenges that our education system has struggled with in the past. For example, we know that poverty erects barriers to learning from a young age. But we don’t invest in the very social supports that could predictably combat those detrimental effects of poverty on children’s healthy development. Education reformers often lament the human capital crisis in K-12 education by citing shortages of high-quality teachers. In reality, however, the world offers an abundance of human capital across all sorts of industries and neighborhoods. We just haven’t designed a school system or the right tools to tap into that huge reserve. Similarly, advocates focus relentlessly on closing the achievement gap to enhance social mobility, yet school systematically ignore gaps in poor and minority students’ access to power and relationships that could engender such mobility. Employers consider the importance of “real-world” relevance in education, but schools fail to pursue instructional models that could connect authentically what happens inside classrooms with the wide range of industries in the real world.
These structural impediments threaten schools’ ability to address achievement and opportunity gaps alike. We can start to overcome these perennial obstacles by investing in relationships. From there, we can start to fundamentally reimagine school as a networking hub.
Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.
Adapted with permission from Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks, published by Wiley & Sons.
1. Pew Research Center, “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives,” 2011, http://www.pewinternet.org/2011/06/16/social-networking-sites-and-our-lives/.
2. iMENTOR. (2016). iMENTOR NYC Pair Profiles: Eric and Zachary. Retrieved from https://www.imentor.org/pair-profile/eric-and-zachary
3. Carolan, Jennifer, (2016). “Why VR matters especially in rural schools,” TechCrunch, Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2016/09/19/why-vr-matters-especially-in-rural-schools
4. Pinker, S. (2014). The village effect: How face-to-face contact can make us healthier and happier. Toronto, Canada: Random House Canada. Robert Putnam’s research has likewise identified the impact that strong social capital has on health, particularly when it comes to group membership. Any aging smokers should take note: “As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half,” he wrote. “If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.” Putnam, R. D. (2001). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
9.For analyses that cut through overly simplistic strong- and weak-tie constructs, see, for example, Small, M. L. (2017). Someone to talk to. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Gee, L. K., Jones, J., & Burke, M. (2017). Social Networks and labor markets: How strong ties relate to job finding on Facebook’s social network. Journal of Labor Economics, 35(2), 485-518. https://doi.org/10.1086/686225. Smith, S.S. (2016) Job-finding among the poor: Do social ties matter? In D. Brady & L.M. Burton (eds.), The Oxford handbook of the social science of poverty. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.