“It is not stealing, which is good Karma” said Steve Jobs in April 2003, when he launched iTunes. In October 2003, I wrote an article for my Faculty Magazine about the music industry and foresaw services like iTunes would be the future of the music industry. Nine years later, who still buys music in a record store?
In the world of learning, it’s now 2003.
Anno 2012, we are still hoarding students through degree factories, aiming to let them pass tests, so they can be given a standard seal of approval. We are using a system that was based on scarcity of information and hierarchy in a that has become flatter and more abundant with information through the Internet. The technology to radically change the way we learn is there, but we’re using only a fraction of its potential.
Habits and attitudes of both institutions (schools, universities, MOE) and society (students, parents, employers) haven’t caught up. Schools use software for administration, and Internet is used as a resource and to facilitate collaboration. It’s like buying a CD in a record store and then ripping it to your laptop / MP3 player, like we used to do in 2003.
So what is the future of learning?
We can’t know for sure, but based on developments that are already in motion, here are a number of changes I’m expecting:
#1 Teachers will coach, rather than explain
In the pre-Internet age, knowledge was scarce. We had books, and teachers were the ones to explain them to us. Nowadays, no matter what you want to learn, students have access, usually for free, to blogs and publications from experts. Want to replace the motherboard of your iPhone? YouTube has loads of videos showing you exactly how to do it.
Students will only have a teacher as long as they’re in school. With all the resources available, why not have teachers focus on coaching students in their learning process? With so much information around, teachers can coach students things like:
- Finding the information you need
- Drawing conclusions from contradicting information
- Evaluating the reliability of sources
- Distinguish opinion from fact
- Translating knowledge into action
- Using resources (books, e-courses, videos, lessons, personal mentors etc.) to acquire a new skill
Society is changing rapidly, and we can’t continue to rely on the knowledge we once learned in school. When I graduated, Twitter wasn’t even around. Now it’s part of my professional life. The most important thing to learn is how to acquire new knowledge and skills. As far as Twitter is concerned, I’m still grappling with it.
#2 Classes based on skill and interest, not age
Schools divide their students in cohorts based on the year in which they were born. But that’s pretty random. Everyone has different talents, and will learn faster in one subject than another, or learn faster over the whole. The fast ones get bored, the slower students demotivated. Besides, every person has a different learning style.
Singapore has streaming, but it’s extremely rigid. While it may make students into neatly standardized packages, it hardly takes full advantage of each student’s particular talents. Companies are not so much looking for generalists as for people with deep expertise or experience in a certain field, or combination of fields.
Why do we need to put students together by age when they are studying, say, English literature? When people of varying age, ability and background get together, it often brings better insights. The older, more experienced students can teach the younger ones. And by teaching, they’ll deepen their own knowledge.
Of course, we all need a basic foundation, but beyond that, by giving students the freedom to pursue what they love, we will give them a head start in their future career. They can explore, and start becoming an expert in what they love.
Giving students this much freedom would be messy, yes. And I think the main reason it hasn’t happened before, is that the resources to support self directed study weren’t there: if there is one teacher to thirty students, they will have to supervise a group of 30 students, a.k.a. a class. Keeping track of accomplishments of students following their own path would be a nightmare.
But now we can, and that’s my next point:
#3 Portfolios will replace exams.
We’re already seeing a shift to more project work at all levels of education. But curiously, when it comes to assessment, most of us, students, teachers and parents alike, still feel more comfortable with a standard test at the end. It’s neat: you pass the path of tests and get awarded a paper certification. Now you’re ready to enter the real world.
Tests are convenient when you are leading a cohort of students that have to digest a standardized set of information. As a teacher, you write the test, put the students in one room to administer it, then grade it. After that, we can do the math and know where everyone stands.
But this system breaks down when students are following a highly personalized learning path. Technically, it’s now possible to have students put together their own learning portfolio online, blog about their achievements and insights and upload their projects and presentations. But just like we had no Facebook in 2003, no site or service has really emerged as an accepted leader in this field.
Those that exist, let the school administer the student accounts. I think, like Facebook, that ownership of the portfolio should lie with the student, and he/she can add projects from all kind of sources, and build up a real repository through different stages of education, and life.
Then how about Diplomas and Degrees? I think they will continue to exist in some form or other, but they will become less important.
Simply having a Diploma or Degree is now insufficient for landing a job. With the advance of Linkedin, recruiters are zooming in on people with a very special combination of skills, who have demonstrated by their previous achievements that they are the exact right fit for a particular job.
For example, when hiring a recent graduate, a recruiter may think: “OK, this candidate has graduated from Victoria JC and then went on to get a Business degree at SMU. Looks like she’s capable enough to do that. But does she have business sense? Does she have affinity with what we do as a company? Will she be able to liaise between accounting and marketing?”.
A certificate or grade transcript can’t answer those questions. A portfolio can. If the student can showcase the project she did over her lifetime, it will help her make a case of why she is the best candidate for a particular job opening.
In my first job, I organized cultural trainings for expatriates. To get hired, my business degree was a mere qualifier. My life experiences, of having lived in different countries (Netherlands, Ghana, Singapore, Belgium, Italy) and the passion displayed for the combination of business and culture in my thesis and extracurricular activities made all the difference.
So, exciting times are ahead!
I must admit that I haven’t been a schooling student for a while, nor do I teach in the traditional sense of the word. If you’re a teacher or a student, do you recognize the contours of the above already? In short, what do you think will change in the way we learn in the next 9 years?