Education: Not a Revolution, but a change that might just work

In the last six months I submerged myself deeply in the ups and downs of technology innovation around education and learning and shifted my career to focus to just that. Yes ladies and gentlemen, no more hiring and I’m going to come right out and say it: few areas have been as hopeful and as disappointing as innovation in education.

Education is the most important function in our society today, yet it remains one of the least understood, despite incredible levels of investment from venture capitalists and governments.

We may have an empirical idea and some hunches, but we still lack any fundamental insights.

That’s truly disappointing. With the rise of the internet, it seemed like education was to experience a complete revolution. Today, though, you would be excused for not seeing much of a difference between the way we learn and how we did so twenty years ago. One thesis to understand why this has happened is simply that we have ignored the more human aspects of education, replacing it instead with a “give ’em tablets and they will learn” mentality.

After talking to many people from multiple sectors and backgrounds that are currently running projects and try to make breakthroughs in the area, I think the next wave of education innovation won’t come from dumping technology on the problem. Instead, it will come from deeply engaging with people and empowering them to make learning all their own.

These past months, I talked to two individuals on opposite sides of improving education. Petroula Karagianni, from the University of Athens with whom I have discussed the opportunities and challenges of bringing an entrepreneurial mentality into the structures of classic higher education; And André Lung co-founder of AbilityLoft, an ondemand online education startup, coming at the problem from the other direction, rethinking online education in the aftermath of the MOOC explosion.

One could theorize that online education has kind of overstepped its current effectiveness, and everyone is saying what is possible by painting this picture, but systems haven’t reached that point yet as they are not providing the end user with content custommized to their individual needs and current practices to drive user adoption are laying behind.

Education in general has been designed from the point of view of those instituations that administer it (not drivers of innovation). By shifting the focus of the solution’s design to that of the learner, significant change can happen in the way online education is deployed. Learners would become customers and true loyalty could be achieved,

Together, these two trailblazers and many others like them are starting to form the next wave of education innovation – and potentially transform our societies in the process.

More Transformation

One interesting change in mentality coming from this new wave is a more mature view about what to do with the infrastructure of learning we already have. While the end of universities has been proposed by people like Peter Thiel, the reality is that the combination of status and endowments will ensure that many universities will survive and even thrive in the online age.

One interesting change coming to universities is simply that the timeframe of degree programs won’t be as fixed as they are today. As I spoke over the months with my mother, a pioneer of online education in Latin America we walked through multiple initiatives she has experienced, particularly one belonging to a large retailer in Mexico that has already engaged with many students in just its first few months of operation, being the students, the full time employees of the retailing giant. There has been enormous interest and demand and they have seen a strong community form with students leveraging each other.

Speaking methodically through the changes coming to education, everyone believes that large research universities won’t change much in the near future from new online education initiatives. The four year degree as we know it symbolically is going to change very little over the next ten years.

Instead, those involved in this field, like Petroula,  see a larger cultural shift to the same sort of continuous education that the AbilityLoft will be trying to instill in its learners. We know that skills are changing faster and faster, so teaching people how to learn new skills is really important, as much as it is to help people find the training they needs at the level adequate to their present knowledge. That skills-based approach is also what startups can do to help the current system. No one is trying to replace the position of prestigious universities. It is going to take a long time to see someone like OneMonth on a resume; it took long enough to see insitutions like Open University on them, which is why they are targeting more the skills.

One mistake that some see is in the extensive focus on students over teachers. While the language of education innovation often emphasizes students, empowering teachers may be as important or even more so for rethinking the way we learn. “We need to change the role of teachers. What kind of people do we consider teachers? How do we elevate teachers in society?”

Finding The Next Era

Today, it seems clear that the fusion of online and offline learning is going to be at the core of improving education. Humans are social creatures, and placing them in front of a laptop and hoping that they are just going to soak up the knowledge is often asking too much.

At the same time though, we need to be shifting our culture about what the ideal form of education might be. Academic knowledge needs to be complemented with practical learning, a mix that can be customized to each student’s needs. We are trying to build this technology that highlights the best content and trying to shift, in the students’ eyes and everyone’s eyes, what is the role of education in their life.

Whether through experiential learning with startups or skills-based learning through an online ondemand service, this next generation of education may be less disruptive and sexy than its immediate predecessor – but it also might just work.

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