The Current State: The Education System

I’m kind of annoyed that it has taken me so long to develop this post, so long that I’ve been beaten to the punch on a number of fronts. At the same time its nice to hear other similar voices airing similar ideas which has been comforting and reassuring – so I’ve tried to include their voices too. For this post to really make sense I do suggest reading my latest Current State post – The Current State: Society Transitioning – because what I see as the current state of education is a sector desperately trying to come to terms with much broader societal change. To briefly outline my last post, and its relevance:

The revolution going on at the moment in the Education sector is not happening in our system, it’s happening to it. The real change is going on outside and it’s a societal transition from passive consumerism to active ownership. This shift is systematically disrupting the institutions, traditions and values that have shaped society up until now because they rely on a relationship model that is changing. This societal change explains why and what we are experiencing right now but also points to the ‘real’ changes that are required to adapt. Interestingly the changes required are not the ones being peddled by various corporate interests or technological determinists, but are far more fundamental and human.

Education has been structured around a very different power model where the teacher has in the dominant role. This is the same kind of hierarchical relationship governments and corporations are based on, and at its heart relies on the consumer being passive. The problem is that society as a whole has moved away from this power model and the owner now steers the ship. Our new owner society is a very different place and education is a service that is engaged by owners. If you’re an owner and you’re putting your future in someone elses hands you expect to participate, you expect to be actively engaged because essentially this is you shaping your future. This shift has occurred because the future is not something you can simply buy off the shelf, you have to invest in the process so you expect to feel included, satisfied and engaged. You want to own it.

Ownership of an education is not contained in an object, it is not the degree at the end. It is the learning process that you are invested in and it is only through doing that it can be truly owned. There is responsibility required to engage with the institution, the community of learners, teachers and environment to enable that process to happen. It is not the simple model being sold by tech companies and publishers where we simply fill our brain with content – this is the passive consumer model and we have to move beyond this. Consumption of content is not learning and providing content is not an education. Participating, acting, applying and working with content, ideas, peers and teachers is what an education is.

For the whole education sector we need to understand that education is about developing a relationship. It is about developing an environment where a community can flourish and enabling teachers and learners to participate in the process. We need to be actively engaged and involved with our students and they have to reciprocate that participation. We have to change the power model so that institutions and owners feel as equals and can clearly understand their obligations to one another.

So how do we move forward?

This is the really difficult part because there is a very convincing truth being sold by those with a vested interest that the entire education system – it seems to apply on a global scale – is broken. Despite the fact that all the people selling this truth went through the same system and benefited, they now see fit to preach that everything is broken and needs to be replaced. The thing is, that kind of language sounds very consumerist – throw it away and buy a new one – and we are shifting away from that passive model to this active owner model. An owner knows that more often than not it makes sense to fix something, to mend and repair the cause of the problem rather than just remediate the surface.

So why is the education system broken? Well, what I would say is that it isn’t broken to the extent to which it is being marketed by the press and those with a vested interest. Instead I would use the analogy of a car with a flat tire, not a seized engine. This analogy is a good one because you don’t buy a new car because the tire is flat, you pull over and repair it. The flat tire is not something you can ride through, you have to fix it, because it significantly impacts the ride and performance and pretty soon you risk doing some real damage to the vehicle (and possibly the passengers too!). I suppose where the analogy falls down is that the solution is far more complex than simply swapping one tire for another. The problem is fixable, it’s just a lot of work because what is needed is true innovation.

We need to sit back and act as responsible owners, weigh up what is feasible and move forward with a new model that balances risk and reward. The educational system may seem to be broken, but it can be repaired. So much of the system is good – the staff, the students, the environments, the content – what needs to change is how they perform and work together. What we need is a tune-up, a spring clean, an opportunity to sort through the current context and find a path that optimises the learning experience. The kind of ideas process discussed in Jesse Stommel’s piece Online Learning: A User’s Guide to Forking Education, otherwise we’ll end up with

“Education rendered into a dull 2-dimensional carbon copy, scanned, faxed, encoded and then made human-readable, an utter lack of intellectual bravery”

The problem is that there is another solution on the table. This is the one outlined in Audrey Watters’ Click Here to Save Education: Evgeny Morozov and Ed-Tech Solutionism where she outlines the cross over of Morozov’s book with the current state of educational technology.

The book identifies two main ideologies — “Internet-centrism” and “technological solutionism” — that permeate the tech industry, its PR wing the tech blogosphere, and increasingly government policy and thus our public and our private lives. “Internet-centrism” connects to Morozov’s earlier arguments in The Net Delusion and describes the tendency to see “the Internet”… as a new yet unchanging, autonomous, and inevitable socio-technological development and a master framework for how all institutions will supposedly operate moving forward. “Technological solutionism” is the related tendency to identify simple answers — in all domains, not just the tech sector — “before the questions have been fully asked” or the problems fully articulated.

Take, for example: “the Internet has changed everything about how we teach and learn.” Thus, “education is broken.” And from there, “technology will fix it.”

I really identified with the points made around data because that is what is at the heart of the tech solutions, but also the heart of political policy that drives their adoption and has created a commercial environment ripe for investment. Morozov’s quote here resonates deeply:

Somehow, all that matters in the numeric imagination, are how well American students score on standardized test scores — as if that is a measurement that could ever capture the complexity of an individual’s learning, let alone an entire nation’s education system.

In this changing society what is needed are innovations and solutions that deal with relationships, but what we are being sold to by commercial interests in not participation because that’s something that is hard to achieve and not particularly profitable in the short-term. Technology companies are going out of their way to engage with education, but they are bringing a way of doing business and investing that is not coherent with education. Education is a slow burn, a long-term investment that may take 20 years to fully manifest. This is not the kind of environment that venture capital is used to investing – so they don’t offer it. This way of thinking is reflected in a recent article moocs vs. innovative learning experiences. The current state of education is caught up in the “commodification and privatization of education” and the fact the ‘solutions’ being sold are largely based on to the “passive didactic pedagogies”. Rather than innovate in areas where technology and practice can “emphasize individual control and co-operative learning” that respond to the Owner we are stuck with expensive and problematic efforts that are keen to maintain the passive consumer model. This is what you should expect from industries and cultures that have thrived the old models, but it won’t work any more because society has moved on.

The promise of a Sugatra Mitra’s ‘classroom in the cloud’ is ridiculous because it fails to look deeper at what education institutions like schools and universities actually provide to a society. They offer a defined and safe place, a community and an environment to learn. Our current society can only function because of these systems – to put it far too simply – what is the alternative child care facilities for those 13 years of a child’s life? Who accredits the doctor performing that you put your life in – Coursera, EdX or iTunesU? It also removes the relationship with the teacher – which is really the core of learning. If content delivery was what education boils down to then we’d all be geniuses because libraries have been around for centuries. No education is more than that: it’s the messy, hard to measure, qualitative, opinionated, personal and fuzzy stuff that’s really hard to make a buck out of.

I want to end this blog on the line that really started this train of thought and kickstarted the development of my ideas. To me it clearly defines the problem, which is often more important than finding the solution. It is summed up perfectly in this tweet from Audrey Watters:

The big shift isn’t that content is digital. It’s that learning culture is participatory.
– @AngelaMaiers



Thanks to @Jessifer, @audreywatters & @evgenymorozov for your great thought-provoking words

2 thoughts on “The Current State: The Education System

  1. Pingback: Michael Feldstein starts discussion of solutionism in ed tech | Jared Stein

  2. Pingback: The Current State: Mobile Learning | Heart | Soul | Machine

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