Iceland was a canny choice for a Summit. Literally in sight of the house where Reagan and Gorbachov met in 1986 (Berlin Wall fell in 1989), it was a deep, at times edgy, dive into the future of education. When people get together and face up to rifts in opinion and talk it through – as the Reagan-Gorbachov summit showed, things happen – well maybe. Here's my ten takeaways from the event (personal).
1. Haves-have nots
First the place. Iceland has eemerged up through the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which still runs right through the middle. Sure enough, while here, there were political rifts in the US, with the Coney-Trump farrago, and a divisive election in the UK. It is clear that an economic policies have caused fractures between the haves and the have-nots. In the UK there’s a hung Parliament, country split, Brexit negotiations loom and crisis in Northern Ireland. In the US Trump rode into Washington on a wave of disaffection and is causing chaos.
But let’s not imagine that Higher Education lies above all of this. Similar fault lines emerged at this Summit. As Peter Thiel said, Higher Education is like the Catholic Church on eve of Reformation, “a priestly class of professors….people buying indulgences in the form of amassing enormous debt for the sort of the secular salvation that a diploma represents”. More significantly he claims there has been a ‘failure of the imagination, a failure to consider alternative futures’. Culture continues to trump strategy.
Higher Education is a valuable feature of cultural life but people are having doubts. Has it become obese? Why have costs ballooned while delivering the same experience? There are problems around costs, quality of teaching and relevance. Indeed, could Higher Education be generating social inequalities? In the US and UK there was a perception, not without truth, that there is a gulf between an urban, economically stable, educated elite and the rest, who have been left to drift into low status jobs and a loss of hope for their children. The Federal debt held on student loans in the US has topped 1.5 trillion. In the UK, institutions simply raise fees to whatever cap they can. The building goes on, costs escalate and students loans get bigger. Unlike almost every other area of human endeavor, it seems there has been little effort to reduce costs and look for cost-effective solutions.
Recommendation: HE must lower its costs and scale
The idea that the current Higher Education model should be applied to the developing world is odd, as it doesn’t seem to work that well in the developed world. Rising costs, student and/or government debts, dated pedagogy and an imbalance between the academic and vocational, renders application in the developing world at best difficult, at worse dangerous. I have been involved in this debate and it is clear that the developing world needs vocational first, academic second.
Recommendation: Develop different and digital HE model for developing world
In an odd session by Audrey Watters, we had a rehash of one of her blogs, about personalized learning being part of the recent rise in ‘populism’. She blamed ‘capitalism’ for everything, seeing ‘ideology’ everywhere. But as one brave participant shouted behind me “so your position is free from ideology then?” It was the most disturbing session I heard, as it confirmed my view that the liberal elite are somewhat out of touch with reality and all too ready to trot out old leftist tropes about capitalism and ideology, without any real solutions. The one question, from the excellent Valerie Hannon, stated quite simply, that she was “throwing the baby out with the bath water”. Underlying much of the debate at the summit lay an inconvenient truth that Higher Ed has a widespread and deep anti-corporate culture. This means that the public and private sectors talk past, and not to, each other. This is a real problem in EdTech. Until we start talking to each other, like Reagan and Gorbachov, this wall will not fall.
Recommendation: Stop talking past each other, talk to each other
Session after session laid out established and recent research in cognitive psychology and educational research, which showed the redundancy of the lecture as a core pedagogic principle. Data was shown of shockingly low attendance in lectures from both the US and the UK. The illusion that Higher Ed teaches critical thinking was also exposed by Ben Nelson (critical thinking by the way isn’t really a thing in itself). Arun’s study in Academically Adrift, of 2332 students, in 23 institutions, over 4 years, showed a worrying lack of success in critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication. Harold Beckering gave a brilliant talk on how we learn through the correction of errors, yet teaching methods fail to recognize this core cognitive fact. Roger Schank eviscerated current pedagogy with its lazy obsessions with lectures, and marking. Think of parents, he pleaded, did you ever give your kid a test or mark them?
Recommendation: Don’t lecture me!
5. Teaching v research
Astin’s study of 24,847 students, in 309 institutions, looked at the correlation between ‘faculty orientation towards research’ and ‘student/teaching orientation’ and found them to be strongly negatively correlated. Student orientation was also negatively related to compensation, with a “significant institutional price to be paid, in terms of student development, for a very strong faculty emphasis on research”. This should come as no surprise. Research skills require systematic thinking, attention to detail, understanding of methods and analysis. Teaching skills require social skills, communication skills, the ability to hold an audience, keep to the right level, avoid cognitive overload, good pedagogic skills and the ability to deliver constructive feedback. An additional problem being the exponential growth of Journals and, some would say, 2nd and 3rd rate research. The swing away from teaching towards research over the lasy 6o years has been well documented by Jencks, Boyer, Massy and Bok.
Recommendation: Research is not a necessary condition for teaching – break the link
6. Building v online
Most campuses look as though they’ve been built by committee, often a rather ugly assembly of disparate buildings – that’s because they have been built departmentally. The architecture reflects the fractured, departmental nature of the organisation. Encouraged by endowments, where alumni want their name, if not in lights, in concrete – the building goes on. Yet the occupancy rates of University buildings shows an appalling return on investment. At the same time there is often a small and tactical approach to online delivery. It is perhaps time to consider, what John Daniel called, a ‘default to digital’ for some courses.
Recommendation: Build less. Balance out the capital budget with a substantial digital budget
HE is unlikely to change from inside, as culture trumps strategy. Substantial, strategic change - online courses, rebalancing academic/vocational, pedagogic and technology shifts are more likely to come from outside of academe, influence and action through political policies, technological shifts, new models such as MOOCs/online courses and use of technology by students. Sure there’s some good and real change happening within HE but they tend to be, and remain, outliers. The core system is in stasis.
Recommendation: Open up to outside, not just with technology but culturally
8. Tech v anti-tech
In technology, AI was the hot topic, and rightly so. I gave a session devoted to its application in learning, others also, and it was a recurring theme. To be honest, AI is not really the right phrase, let’s just call it smart software. We had a marvelous talk from Nell Watson on the transformative nature of machine learning, another from Valerie Hannon making a similar point about the complexity of the problems we face and the need for smart, technological solutions in education. Peter O’Driscoll also showed how tech ‘jerks’ people around in institutions but rather than retreat into culturally safe, luddite shelters, we need to embrace the technology to do good.
Recommendation: Embrace transformative technology
9. Culture v strategy
Culture trumps strategy. Budgets, chasing ratings, quality systems, building programmes, obsession with lectures, research-driven teaching, an anti-corporate, internal-looking culture always trumps strategy. Change management (planned and executed) is the way to go and we can learn a lot about how this is done in the outside world – not by writing reports but by creating a sense of urgency and sustained action. No matter how many summits, reports and horizon scans we have – ‘the best way to predict the future is to create it’ (Alan Kay). That means recognising the issues and taking a strategic approach to solutions.
Recommendation: Strategic, costed initiatives with change management
10. Academic v vocational
There’s always been a tension between these two but the pendulum may have swung way too far towards the academic. Roger Schank and I made passionate pleas for more learning by doing and more apprenticeships. It’s no accident that Germany is Europe’s strongest economy – they have balance in their educational system. Guess what happens – within 48 hours Trump issues a major policy announcement recommending precisely this. We’ve already done this in the UK with 0.5% of payroll (by law) going towards apprenticeships.
Recommendation: Rebalance academic and vocational
As if by magic, which of course it is not, within 48 hours of our Summit, there was a major briefing from the White House about building skills and apprenticeships, exactly what Roger and I had been talking about. (There is a link which will be revealed later.) It’s a pity that it’s taken a Trump to get this going – but hey – I don’t care where it comes from – good policy is good policy. It is an example of what I was talking about. Paraphrasing Alan Jay, we can take the future into our own hands or let it just happen.
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