The Hidden Revolution: From Schooling to Learning

Written by: Avi Warshavsky

Consider the following image, almost a caricature of today’s startup scene. A young, enthusiastic entrepreneur stands of the stage and, accompanying his words with animated gestures, declares that his initiative will disrupt the industry in which he is working. This word, “disruption,” has undergone a fascinating transformation in terms of the connotations that is generates. From a disquieting term identified with crisis, it has become — thanks to a theory developed by Clayton Christensen in the late 90s — a term identified with innovation, creativity and progress. Almost every industry and category around us has been disrupted and redefined over the past two decades, thanks to revolutions created by technological innovation. Whole professions have disappeared, new ones have been created, and almost every profession has been redefined. How has education been influenced by this technological innovation? We commonly say that it has hardly been affected. A graphic artist who was trained 30 years ago, but who has not updated their skills since, will probably not find work in today’s labor market. On the other hand, a teacher who was trained 30 years ago and who has not kept up to date, should still be able to integrate easily in an educational environment that also has almost not changed its appearance or structure. The commonly held view, that education has undergone almost no change, is based to a large extent on our expectations of revolutions, and our notion of how they progress. We tend to imagine revolutions in the spirit of Malcolm X’s statement, “A revolution is like a forest fire. It burns everything in its path.” Sometimes, however, revolutions take place beneath the surface, without us realizing their power. Clayton Christensen’s theory, which redefined the idea of disruption, also taught us that one of the characteristics of disruptive innovation is the “dead zone” or “blind spot” — disruptive innovation generally takes place somewhere that we aren’t looking, and among users who are not the typical group of users. It would seem that this is also the case regarding the revolution in education. It is taking place at this very moment, powerfully, but not where we usually look.

The Revolution that We Don’t See

We are used to seeing schools and institutions of learning as the focal point for education, but this revolution is taking place within other frameworks and along other axes to which we do not devote sufficient attention. The world of educational technology can be divided into two technology families: the schooling family and the learning family. Schooling technologies are those that come primarily to serve the school and the way in which it is run. As such, they reinforce and attempt to assist the existing structure of the school. Hence, we see quite a few technologies that perpetuate the structure of the school, and offer ways of reinforcing it. In place of a chalkboard, we use an interactive smart-board; in place of printed textbooks, we use digital textbooks; and instead of a teacher standing in the front of a classroom with a few dozen students, we now have teachers on the screen talking with a few dozen students. Another characteristic of the schooling technologies is the fact that they try to make the existing system more efficient. For example, learning management systems sometimes place great emphasis on the management-administrative-report production aspect, on access permissions, and on organizing information in folders, at the expense of those needs related to the learning process itself. However, over the past decade, we have witnessed a growth in technological solutions whose starting point is not the structure of the school or the needs of the system, but the learning process itself. These solutions generally develop outside the world of the school, and so are not something that we focus on. At Shaping the Future 4, we dwelt on three such phenomena, each of them driven by different processes and motivations, but all of them closely related to the startup movement in education, a set of initiatives whose center of gravity does not come from within the system, but rather from independent entrepreneurship that is able to look directly at the learning process, without the “filter” of the school’s structure and considerations.

Technology: Smart Machines

The first trend that we reviewed was the development of “smart machines.” This heading covers a broad range of phenomena, from adaptive learning, which has already been with us for some years, through to artificial intelligence, the great promise that, in part, is coming to fruition in areas such as marketing and medicine, and is taking its first steps in education as well. What is common to the various tools that belong to the “smart machine” family is the promise of individualization of learning. These systems get to know us, and offer us the appropriate progress path, at an appropriate pace and in line with our own inclinations and preferences. This vision addresses the eternal challenge involved in learning in a group — the challenge of the heterogeneous class or learning group. In order to understand the enormous potential of this trend, all we need to do is look at present day practices in marketing and advertising. Personalized marketing has become so ingrained in our lives, and is so powerful and sophisticated, that it has become almost transparent. What will a learning culture look like if it gives broad expression to these trends?

Culture: Amateurs as the New Professionals

The second trend is a fascinating cultural trend that, over the past five years, has begun to gain momentum. It is a trend in which learners choose alternative teachers, generally amateurs who are not institutional representatives of the system. A clear instance of this phenomenon is that of “YouTubers” — YouTube stars, usually young, often only in their teens. Such stars are, first and foremost, teachers who teach their adolescent followers a variety of fields. Someone who follows a YouTuber generally follows them as a persona, a kind of rock star, rather than in connection with the specific field that the YouTuber teaches. Thus, on one day the YouTuber may teach about some chemical principle, another day the use of video editing software, and the next day something connected to games. What drives the learning is the charisma of the speakers, and their social virality. And the outcome addresses one of the major challenges of the world of learning — how to create motivation among learners. Learning from YouTubers is totally learner motivated — there is no external coercion that makes the learner learn from the YouTuber.

Society: Closing the Training and Employment Gap

The third trend is initiatives that attempt to bridge the gap between training institutions and the world of employment. This gap is an ancient one that came into being almost as soon as formal educational systems began to operate. By its nature, an educational system finds it difficult to keep up with the pace of developments in the “outside world,” particularly if we are speaking of our own era, in which professions and trades are disappearing, and new ones are being born, often over a time span of less than a decade. In the face of this gap, we are also witness to a series of startups that offer training that is precisely in line with the needs of specific employers. These initiatives offer learning focused exactly on what is needed to be taken on at one’s next place of employment — often in deliberate coordination with those places of employment. What these initiatives are responding to is, for example, the need for a course in a specific programming language, rather than completion of a full degree program in computer science. Combining this trend with the flexibility of online access and with information obtained from the wide variety of activity on the web has led to a development that may threaten institutions of higher education in the short term, and even high schools in the longer term.

The Line Joining all the Dots

Each of these trends brings with it the opportunity to address a fundamental, almost eternal, problem of education systems — smart machines address the challenges of the heterogeneous classroom, learning from amateurs addresses the challenge of generating motivation, in that it creates a “knowledge economy” that is based on purely individual motivation, and initiatives that offer professional training that bypasses institutions address the problem of the relevancy of educational institutions. Each of these trends also brings its own challenges and reasons for concern. A focus on smart machines tailored to each individual learner may come at the expense of group learning, which itself is very important. Learning from amateurs comes at the high price of losing the criterion of professionalism, and surrender to the bottom line of popularity and the culture of consumption. And bypassing institutional learning may lose us a cultural sounding box, and the connections that build an infrastructure for the long term.

During Shaping the future we attempted to touch on both the opportunities and the challenges that each of these trends calls forth. But apart from the specific aspects of each of these developments in itself, it is important to look at the line that is taking shape as we join all these dots together — a line delineating a revolution that is quiet, but which potentially has enormous influence, a line that points to a type of learning in which the learner, not the system, is at the center and in which learning becomes more dominant than schooling.

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