Education disruption is on the horizon. The situation is ripe for disruption because everything is getting disrupted by technology. When I say disruption, i’m not talking about my son’s third grade teacher Ms. Lee having a bunch of adaptive learning workstations in her classroom at Pittsboro Elementary school. I’m talking about a future with no Ms. Lee, no classroom, and no Pittsboro Elementary School at all. Who needs any of that if my son can login from home and have the computer teach him? Think i’m being crazy?
First let’s look at the why’s of disruption. There will be no disruption if there is no need, right? Well there is clearly a need at all levels. Let’s start with my son’s level, K-12.
In a comprehensive 2011 article in the Atlantic, Joel Klein describes the enormous challenges with the K12 system in New York. It paints a picture of big unions, impossible bureaucracy, tremendous hostility for reform skyrocketing costs, and many other challenges to changing the system. It makes the case that the costs are incredibly high for America’s economy. It’s absolutely worth a read. Ultimately, even though it was about New York schools, this story could be about our entire educational system. No matter what district you are discussing, It’s the story of a big complex system with competing interests that changes at a glacial pace.
It’s not just union controlled school systems either. Our university system has failed. Students are encouraged to take out loans and “Do what they love, what their passion is”. This has resulted in a situation where students are exiting four year universities with tremendous levels of student loan debt and a degree that’s fairly useless. Jim Clifton sums it up nicely in a Gallup article when he writes:
The current $1.2 trillion in student loan debt is crushing graduates. Total student loan balances have tripled since 2003 and are the second-largest category of borrowing after mortgages. If major employers like Google and Ernst & Young see less need for a college degree, and if other big companies follow suit, then students are paying an exorbitant price for a product of decreasing value.
Now let’s look at the what’s of disruption. I talked about my favorite (and eerily accurate) Sci-fi vision of computer automated teaching in my post “Will we shut off the lights?” but that was more about automation disrupting jobs making things more difficult to the professional. I say eerily because the idea of Mr. Spock from Star Trek getting quizzed by a bunch of computers is sort of what is currently happening with adaptive educational technologies. Adaptive learning is one form of disruption, the one i’m most interested in, but there are many other forms of educational disruption.
There is the idea of an open source, i.e. free education via schools like University of the People, which I have written about. There is https://www.edx.org/, a site that takes some of the best university online courses and makes them open source. There is even a formal term for it, OER or Open Educational Resource. OER textbooks, courses, et.al. are growing in popularity as budgets shrink. There are massively online classrooms offered by all manner of educational institutions. There are online training services such as Lynda.com and coursera. Let’s not forget that we live in the information age. Knowledge and learning resources on nearly every single concept that you can think of is found with a simple google search. Admittedly Youtube and google aren’t very structured nor do they offer anything remotely close to any sort of recognition that you have learned the information. But if you want to know something quick and want the basics, there is no better resource. All you need to do is ask any weekend project warrier where they figured out how to build what they just built. It’s all these things together, and many many others, that the futurists of the world are looking at in education. It’s what is forming their belief of the irrefutable coming disruption to the traditional school system.
This isn’t really an article about the problems with the education system. The system is so big that there are entire industries that are built around chronicling the problems it has. This is no wonder because there are few more emotionally charged connections to people than their kids. This article is for my readers. Generally speaking, if your the type of person who willingly reads my writings or listens to my podcast about the collision points between work and life, you like to learn how to make your life better, you like to be challenged in your thinking, or you are married to me. Ok, maybe that last one is more out of a sense of loyalty rather than an innate inquisitive nature (thanks honey). But for those those who like to ponder, today’s article is to ask, in a world without our current education system, is there still a need for schools?
So what is the point of attending schools?
Currently the reason why we go to school is inertia and culture. We go to school to learn things, because, well, we go to school to learn things. That’s the culturally accepted norm. Grandma isn’t going to say “Go to Coursera sweetie, pick a bunch of hard science classes, and then go network yourself into a position by convincing someone you know the material”. At the same time Ms. employer or Mr. HR may be open to seeing a list of EdX courses on your resume if there is a difficult position to fill but hiring managers and most people at the company are still going to ask “what’s your degree in?” and they will not think highly of the answer “I took some courses online”. School is also a unifying element, especially the university systems. “Where did you go to school?” Or “Where did you get your degree?” is a personal identity akin to “where did you grow up?” because it’s sort of asking the same thing. This can possibly change as the disruptions settle in, but I still don’t think that will happen for a long time. I know tech changes quickly, culture changes over generations. That got me thinking about a problem I had recently, which got me thinking about why schools will continue to exist in the face of all this educational disruption.
Well, as I mentioned I’ve got a Podcast. I’m at the point where I want to expand my admittedly basic studio from a single mic setup to one where I can record a show with several guests. To do that I purchased a Zoom H6 recorder and a bevy of mic’s. I experienced a huge challenge trying to get time carved out to learn how to use the new equipment. I caught myself wishing that I could “just take a class”. Then it hit me. Schools aren’t going away because schools offer the easy answer. It may not be the easy solution, but it’ll be the easy answer. After thinking about it some more, I quantified my theory of why schools aren’t going anywhere to three elements that the schools offer and disruptions don’t, at least not for the foreseeable future. They are the ABC’s of Accountability, Believability, and Community.
Accountability is a big one. To reinforce this point, I have to discuss some of my teaching. I adjunct several community college classes and invariably the students do not get the work in on time. I’m very lenient and I have a tendency to give the students what they ask for, especially when it’s something as simple as extra days to complete an assignment. Unfortunately for them, even I have to hit specific metrics as it relates to student work quality levels, attendance and due dates which means assignments have a finite end. I thought some of the teachers who were much more hard lined than I was had sphincter oriented personalities when I heard them discuss how high their standards were and how inelastic they were to student requests such as the classic need for more time. I now get it. They have expectations and they understand that it creates a win / win situation even if the students hate it. The students learn that there will be some situations in life they have to develop extreme self discipline to get through to the stated goal. At the same time the educator does not have extra work to do, say for instance reading extra credit papers, which is something I regularly assign as makeup work. Although I doubt I’ll ever be a true hard liner, I can see where I will adopt more and more of this attitude over time as I continue to teach. That in turn explains why the people who define the requirements for the degree programs are so exacting. It’s easier for the system and it’s better for the student. Is it any wonder why the first thought that went through my mind when I realized I was dragging on learning the material I needed for my new recorder was “I wish I could just take a class”? I was thinking about traditional school, not an online class, because I knew instinctively it would push me to learn what I needed to learn.
The benefit of this accountability is a cultural believably in the system. In the existing perception and in the future of educational displacement, there will be a generally accepted understanding that graduation from the schools means something. It may not be close to 100% of what the employer wants, and it may not be worth the cost, but the accountability creates the understanding that someone has learned something. They had to do the work or they simply wouldn’t have gotten through the system. They may be wasting their time in some useless communication degree, but boy will they had had to put in time and effort to learn about Organizational Communications. For various reasons employers don’t believe in the value of a high school diploma, but if you graduate with a bachelor’s, or even an associates degree in something, there is a reason to believe in some form of work ethic on the part of the graduate. The people who create online courses and automated learning tools have not started to figure out a way to get this accountability and believably as part of their offerings, at least not in any way that would be broadly accepted by the general population.
Community another big one. We can’t forget that schools are not just for students. Yes, when we think of collegiate communities visions of ivy covered buildings and youth flirting on the green in the spring probably come to mind as the quintessential idyllic educational setting. Anyone who has anything to do with education, especially higher ed understands that is not the only aspect of educational communities. You have to ask yourself why do so many companies push for office days when 98% of their work can be done by remote employees? The answer of course is that there is more synergy when people work next to each other. An email or chat window does not explore solutions nearly as well as a long work conversation over lunch. Educators learn by integrating with each other. It’s the same with thinkers and researchers. Anyone really in the business of ideas generally does a better job when they are around others who are also in the business of ideas at least part of the time. Virtual presence is nice, immediate, and has some benefits, but there still is simply no replacement for the physical interaction of faculty.
Educational disruption is coming. Less teachers, smaller budgets, and more automation will all be part of it. More focus on work based learning and the needs of the employer will also be a part of it. Mobility and distance ed will be a growing piece. Yet, even with all of this, the campus, and really the campus community, isn’t going away. There will always be a need for a physical place where you can go to learn things. Where there will be people to challenge you, to help you with the details and who will hold you to task even if that task is going through the automated learning process. I believe many things in life will go away, but school, the gathering of a learning community won’t ever be 100% virtual and individual. I’m as sure that some variant of school will remain because, well I went to school and I taught school, and in both cases I learned my ABC’s.
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