New Possibilities

While it’s a bit of a cliche, I do believe we are living in different times. It’s hard to dispute that there have been radical shifts in technology and geopolitics in the last decade which call into question many long held institutions and traditions.

The stability and centrality that education used to have in our society and political landscape no longer exists. Education is under threat from diminishing funding and money being syphoned off by for-profit institutions who are driven by a dollar value, not a civic service. The education sector is ripe for change, and dare I say it – disruption. What I’d like to point out is that it’s not the nice easy disruption we’re so used to reading about – you know plugging an app into a vaguely defined problem and spouting how it will change lives with little to know evidence and the falling over in just over 20 months. No, I’m talking about the hard stuff – rethinking the actual underlying models of education. It needs to adapt to a changed environment or it will die out. Education needs to re-establish itself, define its core values and find new ways to deliver them.

There are a variety of ways this could be done – but one area I am particularly interested in is Time. At the moment education, and higher education in particular, is built on a transaction based on a set unit of time. Degrees at every institution around the world are based on this model – explicitly or masked by more “appropriate” terminology. Learning is structured around time and broken into units to make studying and teaching more manageable. But when you throw a concept like Lifelong Learning into this model how does it work? Well for starters it’s completely unsustainable, the cost to get just one degree can take a lifetime to pay off. How can that work if the time unit went from 3 to 30 years? 4 to 40? So what if we rethought those units of time? What if we adjusted the measurements and assessment of learning beyond a single transaction or unit? What if we looked at learning over the longer term and structured learning around that? What if we moved away from the transactional method and focussed on building, developing and maintaining relationships instead? There’s also the notion of timeliness – how accessible is the course at the times when I want to study? When it comes to degrees – they’re not. You study at the times that are determined by the institution. Now there is already work being done in these areas – but it’s still at the fringes and nowhere near the mainstream. There’s huge potential in this space and more broadly when you consider that the underlying technologies, assessment practices and support systems would all need to change and adapt too. (If someone wants to pay me to do the research around this, outline and build a prototype – get in touch!)

One other area of possibility is in Aggregation and Cooperation. There are potential money savings and efficiencies on offer in online education, they just haven’t been explored yet. The focus of online learning so far has been on automation – of removing the teacher and social interactions to focus on content delivery and coded responses. All this fluff about Personalised & Adaptive Learning is just trying to replicate the role of the teacher by removing the teacher, and all without evidence that this is actually a good thing. It seems built on this premise that we actually want robots and not humans to inform our Learning. Where there is real efficiency is to move to a model that decreases the amount of replication across institutions. Unfortunately the corporatisation of public services has forced universities into a faux state of competition – when what is actually required is greater cooperation. If there was one way to guarantee significant and ongoing cost savings it would be to allow, demand and support educational institutions to provide aggregated offerings, to share and reuse resources – not just content, but teachers, support staff and resources. The elitism that has surrounded higher education will surely rear it’s head, but I think that’s one structure that is worth disrupting. Universities have to stop being nostalgic for ideal like Collegiality and Scholarship and started creating new ways to embed them. When you think about it, publishers have capitalised on the divisions in higher education to make a huge profit by in essence doing just this. I think to reclaim that money and invest it where it’s needed – in supporting students and not burdening them with the cost and debt.

The disruption required in a education won’t be found in an app, a technology or shifting control from one institution to another (sorry MOOCs). It will come from rediscovering our purpose and redeveloping the models to suit this new age.


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