Reimagining Higher Education, pt. 2

Today I was listening to a talk from Brendan Boyle on design, serious play, and making toys at IDEO. He and a friend John Cassidy worked on a book called the Klutz Book of Inventions, where they wanted to let anyone see that brilliant ideas often come from ridiculous ones.

Back cover to Klutz Book of Inventions. Image source.

Higher education is one of those things we’d like to think is a producer of brilliance. Highly educated, well-paid teachers plan a rigorous curriculum, while students study and read an incredible rate of new information to connect the dots and understand how these well documented ideas work.

Education knows well how to transfer what is well known. This is because it used to be very hard and expensive to spread information. If you were going to educate a population, you needed to print books, and if you were going to send things to print, you best print the information you are most confident has a long shelf life. Now, tell me how often do ridiculous ideas instill confidence.

Here’s my line of thinking…

To increase the accessibility of brilliant educations, you have to tolerate some ridiculous ideas.

As I waxed on in part 1, I think one of the greatest accessibility issues to higher education is our the cultural notion of what education is, where it happens, and how it works. What would happen if we loosened our grip a bit on education? What if we stopped trying to educate so tightly? Sounds a little ridiculous doesn’t it? Ghandi once said, “You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.” Maybe education could be an accessible hand up to more people if it weren’t so clenched on what is already known and measurable — i.e. printable.

Beyond print thinking to design thinking

This is where I say something about how the world is changing faster than ever…faster than we can print it. Ok there, I said it. Now, how can higher education be made more accessible when it is more fleeting than ever? How do we ever decide what is important to pass on to the next generation? Maybe we don’t have to decide. What if education were more focused on the habits that produce brilliannt, sustainable citizens more than a hard-coded, equality-based curriculum. Habits like these tend to be more inquisitive and aware of surroundings — much like practicing empathy in design thinking.

“Hard-coded” is a commonly used phrase amongst software developers. It describes when program characteristics are fixed and not easily changed or customizable for different scenarios. It’s similar to how specific sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are printed in books. The printed (hard-coded) text doesn’t change for different people or situations. However, this isn’t a requirement of software or educational degrees. It’s just bad design. We can do better.

In 2006, Brit Victor wrote a seminal interaction design paper called Magic Ink. In it he is calling out the fixed and closed nature of software and how this need not be the case. He argues that the entire design field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is in response to poorly designed software, and his goal was to “provide inspiration and direction for progressive designers who suspect that the world of software isn’t as flat as they’ve been told”. Similarly, I believe world-class education need not be as hierarchal and flat as we’ve been told.

The nature of this flatness that Victor alludes to is the fixed, close-fisted, me-first attitude of software. Yes, software has attitiude. Software, like education, is often created by someone who needs to share important information with many people. Understandable, systemic pressures cause them to focus squarely on the information they are trying to convey. There is little to no excess time to work on fitting this information within the rest of the world they’re experiencing —no time to look at the context in which this information could live and be immediately useful.

Victor suggests “context-sensitive information graphics” as a foundational principle for a new wave of software. For the education world, I would call this idea context-sensitive education, where the individual, community context of each person is an interconnected world of cooperative work, learning, and living. To be clear, life is context-senstive education in action, but we when go to school, for some reason all that contextual reality is set aside. To me, that is like learning in the dark. Even worse, we are conditioned to believe that you are either smart or not, and successful or not, if you can manage to feel your way through this maze of scheduled, blind-folded challenges. We are taught this is normal and your performance on these challenges judge your ability in all the rest of the context we just completely ignored.

This is the greatest disservice to people regarding higher education, indeed, all education — when people believe their accessibility to this form of education determines their fate. But education isn’t about form. Rather, it should be about essence, function, and regular application in lived, context-sensitive experiences.

Next up

I’ll expand more on a idea around how education can be context-sensitive and truly accessible.

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