The Future Of Education — A Personal Perspective (Part 2)

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

–William Butler Yeats

“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”

–George Washington Carver


I still love those two quotations!


There are several perspectives on the etymology of the words education and training. My preferred definitions are that education came from educere, meaning to lead forth from within, while training derived from trahere — to drag along. Over the last 150 years, we have blended or confused the two, especially in public education, where we see students being trained in the STEM subjects, for instance, in order to get jobs, rather than appreciating them and being educated in how to think about them for the sake of developing the field further. In the past, education tended to be the purview of the wealthy — it was concerned with abstract ideas and concepts, including the developments of science, mathematics, philosophy language, and metaphysics — truly the world of academe. Training had a more vocational quality — it was concerned with practical aspects of life such as technology, medicine, building, making and so on. Both are necessary, but the focus and emphasis of each are different. I am one of those who fell between the two camps. I love ideas, but I want to apply them practically. I am not an academic.

Also, I am not involved in policy-making, financing of education or issues related to school choice, public versus private…and more. Social trends such as those I have mentioned before in Social Values Models Parts 1 and 2 are likely to have more impact than most educators realize. Young people will want more choice — subject matter approaches to teaching/learning, more options with respect to time and scheduling, use of information technology, and, and, and…

Higher Education

So…moving on to higher education and professional education…and why new approaches are critical. Several significant trends are converging that are likely to disrupt established patterns of life, education, and work. Current educational methods within most universities were developed for an industrial age and in some cases, a pre-industrial age — the University of Bologna was founded in 1088, for instance, followed by Oxford, Salamanca and other European centers. But most universities today still use sequential industrial approaches and teaching materials that require extended time for reading and study. While some distance learning or e-learning is taking place, it is often developed using modern communications technology to replicate older approaches that are not meaningful or engaging for younger generations; and it does not take advantage of developments in the neuroscience of learning or of the rapidly increasing speed and collaboration potential of new communications. Nor does it fit with young people’s desire for faster-paced and fun experiences using gaming, cell phones and more. The Western world is blessed with plentiful education and training, and with societies that believe that spending the first 18–22 years of life undertaking those, is the best option for the future of individuals and societies. So curricula are structured in courses that cover a wide variety of subjects, and that may lead one from another. But they are slow, cumbersome and very time-consuming.

As I mentioned in Part 1, I endured that kind of education and was bored out of my mind for much of the time. Distance-learning/e-learning are beginning to provide more options, but most courses are still structured as complete courses, taught in ways similar to those of 50–80 years ago, and tested in similar ways. Yet the technology and the advances in neuroscience could offer completely new, student-centric, pull-approaches, as opposed to teacher-centric, push-approaches. Indeed, today’s students themselves operate much faster, multitask with ease, and prefer to take in ideas and learning materials in a fast, rapid-fire mode.

Innovation from Developing Countries

If we look at what is happening in developing countries, where the only form of widespread communication is the cell-phone, we can see enormous innovation taking place out of necessity. Young people need to learn marketable skills very fast in order to survive. What they are receiving is training, but the ideas and techniques could also be applied to education. There is a wonderful TED Talk on Education in the Slums by Charles Leadbeater.

We could think of developing professional training and academic distance learning curricula but with more dynamic and immediately relevant content, video simulations, and means of discussion and inquiry. This would not be static, tedious, and outdated content that merely checks the boxes toward the students’ professional advancement. Instead, we could think of easily modifiable and even customizable academic and training content to address the needs of students and trainees. And it would be pulled by them when they need it rather than pushed to them at the convenience of the lecturer. Various universities are now offering credentialed nano-degree programs and MOOCS (massive open online courses.) All these kinds of classes/programs could broaden the students’ interests and inquiry as desired, for their own futures and for those around them. They would be able to access the greatest experts in the world on particular subjects, even from the other side of the world. This could include collaborative, crowdsourced, mentored discussions on topics not only required of the students but of more general interest to them and their peer groups. The idea would be to create more rapid epistemological approaches for more relevant teaching and learning and to deliver them more rapidly in short, sharp, bite-sized pieces (videos and podcasts of 5–10 minutes duration for some course materials, for instance.) Educators and trainers would become more mentors and facilitators than teachers pushing material.

Assessment and Certification

Does everyone need real academic expertise and proficiency? When I first came to the US many years ago, I was very surprised to learn that sales assistants in department stores were required to have a degree. That was not the case in Europe. If people enjoy and want those kinds of academic subjects, then making them available in some way should be part of their education. But if academic subjects bore them, and they can’t wait to get out in the world, then why not have a more vocational track?

In this faster moving, bite-sized approach to education and training, what academic and/or vocational requirements will we see? Will we maintain our high school certificates, our Bachelors’, Masters, and Doctoral programs? Or will we want or be able to take a smorgasbord approach? We have an increasing number of business role models who dropped out of university — Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Sir Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Matt Mullenweg, Arash Ferdowsi, and many more. These were mostly people who saw traditional education as a waste of time and wanted to get on with successful careers in practical fields. Yet I am sure that all of these are life-long learners, so they didn’t pursue conventional education, but took their own approaches. But how can their success be measured, tested and validated except through their performance in the marketplace? If we want to hire people, on what criteria do we hire? There have been many studies made on intuition in the hiring decision process, and people frequently hire on the basis of their intuitions and not on any specific criteria. It may be that that intuitive capacity should be developed further. Or perhaps offer more try-outs before a job is finally offered.

One final point is that many people who take online courses never complete them. Admittedly, these are generally optional courses, but I’ve heard numbers as high as 95% drop out rate. There is an organization that is developing some new approaches to overcoming this problem, and I had hoped to be able to mention their technologies, but they have not yet released information on them.

Whatever the state of the art now, we can most certainly anticipate that the future of education will be vastly different than today. I think it would be useful to keep our minds open to these new ideas. Just because those of us who are over 35 (?!) were not brought up on, or educated or trained to use IT, to multi-task rapidly, and to communicate by text, doesn’t mean that such technologies cannot be of great benefit. Let’s seize the day as the kids in Leadbetter’s video have done!

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