Where to Tomorrow?

When we are faced with a disruptive technology or a paradigm shift, as we are today in HE, Christensen has demonstrated that it is difficult for established institutions to adapt to the changes, and many of them fail as a result. I think that the magnitude of the changes facing education are more than just institutional, they are societal.

If you think about the buy-in that our society has for the factory model of education, virtually everyone (at least 99%), at every level, knows how a good HE educational experience is defined. Although presented from a students perspective below, this model is expected by students, parents, employers, lecturers, educational managers, and educational administers. Politicians espouse the importance of student contact time (along with everyone else) and are always in the front for a photo-op when the newest 30,000 seat lecture theatre is opened and the latest technology is showcased (a better way to amplify your voice, and a bigger projector for your PowerPoint).

You start with a good, entertaining lecture that stimulates the students. You follow this up with an opportunity to write an essay about a topic the lecturer chooses for you. If you are in luck, you have a multiple choice mid-term (so everything doesn’t ride on a single exam), and then finish off with a written final (choose one question from section A and two questions from section B). This is education at its finest. Students expect it, parents expect it, lecturers deliver to it, administers administer it, and society holds it up as an ideal. This the memorization model of learning – I will tell you what you need to know, you memorize it and regurgitate it (with a little bit more), and you receive some reward for having done so. You’re kidding yourself if you think people are looking for something different.

I believe that our western society, with its rich heritage of universities, will, as Christensen suggests, put so much effort into propping up the current HE system, that we will wake up one day and find that the world has moved on and left us behind.

The reason I say this is because the disruptive innovations that are facing education today aren’t just about the ability to deliver digital information at a negligible cost. Certainly digitization is a big one, however, the educational models and what we know about learning are just as important. As an example, Jones’ MUSIC model of student engagement, based on years of research by dozens of psychologists, tells us exactly how we can get slightly interested students to engage in their studies. Other principles of psychology speak directly to how we should be presenting information to effect the most change in our students (e.g. how to foster higher order thinking skills). In addition, the constructivist approach, once adequate background has been attained, leads to a qualitatively different learning experience and outcome for the student.

Focusing on skills to acquire and problems to be solved rather than content to be memorized, leads to a different kind of learner. In my experience using some of these techniques and in the approach of hundreds of others who are experimenting with better ways to teach and learn, we (I say we, although I can only speak authoritatively about my own students) are seeing students who leave our programmes and classes who are excited about learning, who are disappointed that the experience is over, and who are qualitatively different in the way they think and approach problems. These students have tasted what it means to have their abilities, as a person who can think, tapped, and they embrace it. I sometimes wonder, when they leave so excited about what life has to offer them, where they will end up, and what they will be doing.

I’m afraid that the impact I (and a few others) am having on teaching and learning, in general, is too small, and the conservative forces trying to keep things the same as they have always been are too powerful. At least in our western society.

I think that a developing nation with visionary leadership is going to notice what is happening on the fringes of education and build a new educational model embracing some of these changes. They will bypass the multi-billion dollar investment needed for the bricks and mortar institutions we hold so dear, and adopt better ways to develop their human resources. I believe that when we see this happen, we will watch a miracle unfold in a generation.

Even with all the critics lining up to tell us how wrong this is, this kind of vision is already apparent in the countries which have or are pursuing the one laptop per child programme. If they are willing to do this in Uruguay (or wherever) in order to change their society (while we are unwilling to do it for our own children in Britain, Canada, the USA or almost anywhere else in the Western World), I believe that they will skip over our idealised, factory model of memorize and regurgitate model of education, and develop an educational system that will allow large numbers of their students to reach potentials we see in only a few of our brightest and most resilient students.

I was talking to a colleague about this the other day, and he said that this outlook is so dark and gloomy that it verges on depressing. I couldn’t disagree more. This is exciting and wonderful. We have labored for thousands of years to reach the point of real information abundance. We have funded thousands of research hours to find the best models for learning. We have tried thousands of permutations on a theme to get just the right mix of teaching. If our present society is too addicted to their mass opiates (not religion any longer, but consumerism and celebrities) to care, other societies are poised to replace us. It has happened before, and it will happen again. It is going to happen, and we need to decide if our energies are better spent defending our current stagnant system or are we going to embrace and support what we are going to watch emerge somewhere else?

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