Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Education As We Know It Is Finished

So says Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn in Forbes magazine. As authors of Disrupting Class, a useful manifesto on how innovation will change "the way the world learns".

There is a growing head of steam around changes to education systems around the world, largely driven by budget cuts. My hope is that the opportunity is grabbed to more deeply re-think how we use learning technology to fundamentally shape the learning experiences that we give children, students and trainees alike. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to show that existing institutions are simply trying to keep their operational models in tact and cut back rather than transform.

As Christensen and Horn put it:

Many schools have framed the looming cuts as a threat to how they operate--even though the teaching force has grown by 10% since 2000, while student enrollment increased by only 5%. But others are seeing the hardship of the moment as an opportunity to transform what they do with the implementation of online learning. Pressured by not only widespread cuts but also increasing demands for accountability, these innovative leaders recognize that online learning is a key reform for doing more with less.

On a similar vein, in the Independent today the UK Government is announcing a wider adoption of two year degrees. This is, I think, a good thing and long overdue. As the article points out:

Dr Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the private Buckingham University, the first in the UK to offer a standard two-year academic degree, said: "Many more people are suited to two-year courses than realise it. In future, instead of a gap year, people may work for two years and then take a two-year degree when they are a bit older. The advantage is that they are earning in year three. We should allow people to choose what they want. But two years is a very cost-effective option."

He cited new research by the University of Staffordshire suggesting that two-year students achieved an average grade increase of 0.75 of a point, turning a 2:2 degree into a 2:1. "The normal argument for a three-year degree is that you need a long, four-month summer break for deep thoughts. No other human activity requires that. On a two-year course at Buckingham, you still have 12 weeks holiday a year and you don't lose your train of thought," he said.

I have to agree. It's not appropriate for all areas of study - particularly where access to specialist equipment is needed - but huge savings can be made to both students and institutions by properly re-thinking how this learning experience is delivered in a more flexible, accessible and genuinely meaningful way.

Now, the reactions that accompany this news seem to think this is a bad idea. Baroness Greenfield is quoted as saying:

My own view is that university courses are about developing the ability to criticise, think and put things in a wider context and to apply what you are learning to other aspects of life. If you are focussed on ticking boxes, you may not be able to see the wood from the trees.

Someone who is not an academic might resent this but academic study is not a nine-to-five job. All the best ideas come from reading around a subject, reflecting and bouncing ideas about. If university education is about inspiring the next generation, then I believe two-year degrees will prove to be a false economy.

While she makes a good point about developing critical thinking, context and reflection skills, her conclusion that this can't happen in a shorter period than three years misses the point. Everyone has - through the internet - better access to knowledge and skills development than ever before. We have accelerated our abilities to make intellectual connections and so already have the tools in front of us to learn what we want faster and more effectively, both through digital content and access to peers/experts where-ever they are in the world. By fundamentally reformulating university education around this reality I actually believe you can achieve MORE in less time. And in an austere climate, students will also be pleased to hear it doesn't need to cost them anywhere near the level of debt they are being asked to take on.

The power is finally shifting towards the consumers of education. Students can - and I think will - vote with their mouse (or touchscreen gesture) in favour of learning experiences that genuinely support their work and learning aspirations. And they should be able to take as long or as little time as they like to achieve it without unnecessary millstones of debt clouding their future.


Clark said...

I think the notion of alternatives to the traditional 4 year degree make sense, as we see in some other countries. I'd also like to suggest that ideally, the Baroness' critical thinking development happens *before* university. Then we need to reform K12, too, but that's a given.

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