Education Enters The Age of Differentiation

Charles Tsai
Nov 9, 2016 · 5 min read

To fully grasp the significance of the education revolution happening around us, it helps to see it in a larger context. What’s being disrupted isn’t just one industry, important as it is, but an entire narrative around which most of us organize our lives. That narrative — the middle class narrative — goes something like this: we do well in school, go to the best university we can get into, get a degree, get our foot in the door of a good company, work our way up, save enough to buy a house, start a family, and save for retirement.

Today, almost every part of that narrative is being challenged by a perfect storm of market forces as well as technological and societal trends. Politicians do their best to rescue that familiar storyline for new and coming generations. But many of us have a sneaking suspicion change is afoot. We will have to work differently and climb different ladders (or not). All that will entail learning differently and learning different things.

So education’s key challenge isn’t simply about technology and how to adapt to it. It’s about how to help people enact new narratives that make sense for the coming decades.

Until we have a better idea of what those are, we won’t have consensus on how best to leverage new technology. Should we use it to drill content into students with greater efficiency? Or should we liberate them from standard curriculum? The answers right now seem to be yes and yes.

What we are likely to see is more divergent experimentation rather than consensus in the years ahead.

In the near term, we can count on a growing demand for education technology driven by the twin forces that create new markets: differentiation and lower costs.

Right now, much of what happens in schools, which are labor-intensive systems, can be automated. Furthermore, much of what is taught is rule-based, involving right and wrong answers. It doesn’t take much for innovators to offer apps and platforms that deliver learning in better and cheaper ways than what we see in schools today.

We will continue to see new technology, especially artificial intelligence, being deployed to deliver core learning to students both inside and outside classrooms.

Entire schools will also be created from new blueprints to deliver quality education more cheaply. However, these cheaper alternatives won’t just target students who otherwise wouldn’t attend college. Many of them, like Minerva, will be funded to compete against top schools for top talent, putting pressure on traditional universities to innovate.

But cost reduction aside, the need to differentiate is the more important challenge in the next 10 years and will drive the most interesting and consequential experiments both inside and outside the classroom.

Why differentiate? Many fear the current system isn’t just expensive, which it is. They fear it’s irrelevant. Most employers don’t think universities are preparing young people adequately for today’s economy. As if that weren’t bad enough, AI is threatening to automate half of today’s jobs.

Facing a very uncertain future, innovators are willing to question every assumption about what education should look like. Maybe a professional degree can be earned in months rather than years. Maybe schools should guarantee jobs. Maybe all the learning should come from doing instead of teaching. Maybe there are no hard and fast rules.

We see General Assembly, Singularity University, and Udacity go outside of what can be accredited to teach the most in-demand skills for today’s tech economy. 42, a new coding school, is even more radical in how it structures learning. Often compared to The Hunger Games, it selects students by putting them through a 4 week bootcamp. If you survive, you get to become a full-time student for 3 to 5 years — tuition-free. During that time, you learn to code not from professors but by completing projects at your own pace and working with others.

Technology will transform learning outside of school as well. Just look at your smart phone or tablet. Aside from reading ebooks, you might be listening to podcasts, watching online courses, learning languages through Duolingo, increasing your vocabulary through Memrise, and learning new instruments with Yousician. The many apps are not just stand-ins for human teachers. They’re better — at least for rudimentary learning. One by one, they are creating new categories for the education market.

New markets, however, are not exclusive to startups. Value innovation can come from big institutions as well. Although up to half of U.S. universities might go bankrupt in 15 years, the rest will survive through adaptation and innovation. They will make more and more “strategic moves” that will differentiate them from one another, regardless of how they are ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

It’s a given that most of those moves will entail technology. Learning will increasingly be more blended and personalized. With VR on the way, it will also be more powerful. Many universities will try to find a competitive edge in these ways.

The most transformative shift, however, will be seen in how schools view and engage students. Right now, they’re treated as mere consumers of knowledge. But in a world where information is no longer scarce, consumption isn’t enough. They will need to create knowledge as well in order to differentiate themselves from other students. Differentiation through creation will be the modus operandi for students in the decades ahead, just as it is for the schools vying for them.

More and more schools will be creating innovation hubs, like Lehigh University’s Mountaintop program. They will become more central not only to each school’s unique identity but to each student’s experience.

Platforms like Medium and YouTube can also help schools transform all students from consumers to creators. How? By helping students find relevant audiences to create for. The more opportunities students have to connect to audiences (beyond their teachers), the more reasons they will have to create. Students don’t have to limit themselves to learning about a field, they can contribute to it as well, especially if the field is new and emerging.

In short, we are entering an era of experimentation and differentiation. Most new ideas will start from outside the education system and slowly work their way in. Some will be homegrown within schools themselves. But there’s a third way. Education technology companies can work with institutions to design solutions from scratch, as we see in the example of Summit Public Schools. Together, they can tackle the big questions for our schools today: How should we organize learning differently for the 21st century? How do we redefine the roles of teachers and learners?

We are more likely to arrive at answers if educators and innovators join forces. It’s better if they do. What’s at stake isn’t simply the financial viability or profitability of each sector but the ability of our young people to thrive in a very uncertain future.

If you like this article, please recommend it by clicking on the green heart below and follow me to be notified of future articles on how to transform education. See my previous articles as well.

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