The Future of Learning

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Today’s organizations tend to focus on getting better and better at what made them successful. This can be problematic, according to Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma.

“The problem is that this leaves companies vulnerable to the disruptive innovations that emerge in the murky, low-margin bottom of the market,” Christensen explained in a recent interview with Wired magazine.

Christensen noted that journalism, publishing (more broadly), and anything supported by advertising are the next industries that, he believes, are ripe for disruption. And, he said, “higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse.”

What makes higher education vulnerable? Online learning. 

A companion article by Christensen and Michael Horn goes into more detail, particularly about massive open online courses, or MOOCs. They focus on the platforms that are connected with large, traditional universities: Coursera, edX, and Udacity.  Christensen and Michael Horn noted, “The curious thing about the MOOC wave of disruption is that the market leaders—not just upstarts from the edges—are the ones pioneering it. And that rarely happens.”  (It might be worth noting that Horn has degrees from Yale and Harvard, and that Christensen teaches at Harvard.)

The push for innovation, according to Horn and Christensen, has to do with relevance. “In the current university system, for example, most faculty are rewarded for the quality of their research—not for the quality of their teaching. But the medium and scale changes things; in the future, courses might be offered based on employer demand, not faculty research interests.”

The idea that education is changing is certainly not news. For decades, there have been efforts at educational reform at the state and national levels. Very few people seem happy with the ways that things are and yet we can’t agree on how to change them. Some people want more federal funding; others want more local control. Some want to strengthen public systems; others want more options, such as charter schools. Much like health care, costs continue to escalate while our abilities to pay decrease. And also like health care, the money that we invest in in the U.S. is producing less than adequate results compared to other systems in the world. 

In my recent work with a community college system, the issues have become obvious and magnified. Enrollments are dropping as tuition continues to rise and both trends are forecasted to continue. Funding from the state continues to decrease leaving more reliance on student tuition. As an open, public system, they admit any student who can meet the most basic standards. Over 70 percent of new students, though, require at least one remedial course (and often several) in reading or math.

Some years ago this community college system was merged with the technical training schools in the state. That created easier paths for students with technical degrees to use their credits towards academic degrees, such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree, later. This college system is now being pushed in two directions at once. On one side, the universities want community college courses to be equivalent to their own introductory courses so that no time or credit is lost for transfer students. On another side, many community college students do not go on for more advanced degrees, but only want and need a preparatory level of technical skills (from welders to licensed practical nurses and so on.) 

Horn and Christensen are correct about the need to align courses with employer demands (at least to some degree). The problem is that very few employers could tell you what skills they will need five years from now, when current high school seniors will be graduating from college. And if they could, many of those skills would be obsolete, if they were not upgraded, five years after that. Maximum efficiency in technical training is a minimal short-term solution. Training a young person to be proficient only at specific tasks rather than teaching that student more broadly about learning does nothing to help prepare that person for advancement and potential managerial positions. 

If the argument were left at that place, it would simply perpetuate the long-standing debate about the value of liberal arts and similar controversies. Those questions are still pertinent in that we need citizens who are capable of understanding complex problems, at least to the degree that they can vote competently. But that is a large-scale and long-term view. In the short-term, it is not an either-or, technical-versus-liberal arts question. 

Young people need enough education and training to enter productively into the economy. They also need the chance to continue to learn as challenges and opportunities arise for them. 

Organizations cannot continue to treat human resources as ore to be mined. Knowledge is not something produced by the Earth to be exploited as it found useful. Learning is a collective process. It requires sharing and investment. 

The communication technologies that we have today are truly amazing, but they will not solve problems or produce knowledge by themselves. Bela H. Banathy, who founded the systems program at Saybrook many years ago, used to explain that we still lived in a world of 18th century education. Professors (subject experts) stood in front of students in desks (the receivers of the input) to convey knowledge, like material being poured into a contained. Taking that system and putting it online is not an improvement. 

We need, fundamentally, to rethink what we are doing, and why. What knowledge is needed, when, and by whom, for what purpose? What skills can be developed that add both value and capacity for new learning? How do we share knowledge efficiently and productively while also rewarding the people involved fairly? 

These are clearly not small questions. Thinking seriously about them will ultimately challenge not only traditional educational systems, but larger realms such as patents and copyrights and laws about who owns knowledge. At some point, though, an innovation will take hold, toppling a system which has outlived its usefulness.

Read other posts by Gary Metcalf

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