The Future of Education, online and off

by Evs

On Valentines Day, as an ode to my love of learning, I went to see a talk about the future of education at the BetaHaus in Berlin. The event, under the moniker of the BetaSalon, featured 4 speakers from very different backgrounds voicing their unique perspectives on the issues facing the contemporary educational system in the context of the increasingly connected & digitized world we live in.

Here are some of the key ideas that were floated:

unSchooling, a self-determined curriculum 

Dale J. Stevens, the creator of unCollege, began the session by describing his own life as an “unSchooled” student. He presented his own unSchooling experience as a non-traditional path towards success. He choose to drop out of school in grade 6 and forged his own path of learning from that point on. According to him, he studied what he wanted to, what he found interesting, and completely determining his own curriculum. After completing his own high school curriculum, he got into a university. But he promptly dropped out because he found there to be flaws in the traditional school system. He wrote extensively about his criticism of the university system and, through his writings, caught the interest of the American media. He has since been interviewed by some big publications, received a Thiel Fellowship (a new fellowship that encourages young entrepreneurs to skip college and start their projects early) and has written and plans to publish a book. All this and he is only 20! His story is most definitely unique and, in some respects, impressive.

But after telling his story, Stevens went on to advocate unSchooling as model for a general audience. I think this was meant to provoke discussion and that it did. Stevens proposal is idealistic, but flawed. He fails to realize how exceptional and privileged his situation was growing up.  For such a education model to work, you need a supportive family structure, mentors, access to information, access to work opportunities, encouragement, and financial stability. So many people in society do not have these elements in their lives.

Even if this type of education were to be available, would it truly be a good thing for everyone to define their own curriculum from birth? While encouraging curiosity is a mostly virtuous idea, the idea of a wholly self-determined learning experience also has some drawbacks. A purely individualistic education may help someone develop confidence in ones ideas and abilities (a positive), but it also inevitably promotes a narrowing of ones own perspectives – through a focus on what is deemed interesting, and a rejection of what is deemed not interesting- as well as encourage intellectual inflexibility in the face of competing or opposing views (both clear negatives). I realize that Stevens actively distinguished between home-schooled (in the religious sense) and unSchooled, but I find there to be many similarities, primarily an inherent limitation in the range of perspectives explored. Such a curriculum, if implemented, would further polarize people & perspectives, reduce tolerance, and make problem solving across groups that much more difficult.

It may be an unpopular truth, but it is a truth all the same, that some form of conformity to societal norms (which includes a common basic education) is still the glue that holds modern society together.

Group learning outside of the classroom

The following speaker, Anna-Lena Schindl described her personal story of how she learned more in university via her small tightly knit learning group, rather than in the classrooms. In groups, she said, the learning experience can be optimized, and the potential of the individuals explored. This is not a revolutionary idea, but in German university, such study groups are apparently rare and very little group work in most programs of study. In my experience North American universities do try to encourage the active learning from others by including more group project work in the curriculum. However, due to the temporary nature of these projects, many of these groups fail to reach the level of trust, or synergy, that can bring out the extraordinary in the individuals. Schindl’s experiences paint a picture of the benefits that are achieved if the group remains constant over a long term. The potential of group work is not only in the solving of short-term problems, but also in the sharing of knowledge and the learning of skills over the long-term.

To bring the classroom online.

Now the idea of bringing the classroom online has been around for at least 15 years, and there are lots of online study programs but I think the concept has yet to be incorporated in a comprehensive way into the average university’s curriculum. The third speaker at the session, Hannes Klöpper is attempting to do just that. Klöpper is the Managing Director of Iversity, “an online workspace for faculty and students that demonstrates how digital infrastructure improves teaching and learning”. Eight years ago, I had a course which provided a crude online platform as an extension of class discussion. The teacher motivated students to use it by offering course credit for posting. This had a two-fold effect, 1) some students wrote a lot of banal, or sensationalist posts without much forethought 2) some students, including the more shy students, participated more actively in the dialogue than they would in classroom discussions. So, like social media itself, the balance was there: at the expense of a lot more crap, you got previously untapped resources. But overall, it was a moderately successful experiment.  The challenge is to make good use of the platform, to minimize the trolling and maximize the inclusiveness of the tool. I see the potential of getting such a platform included in curriculum, and so I wish Klöpper and Iversity luck with the project.

Highlight the potential of the student and relevance of the material

A point raised throughout the presentations was the lack of relevance of the topics taught in the classrooms. This is a fair criticism, and universities would be well served to encourage the reintroduction of relevance, especially since the world is seeing ideas, trends, topics, technologies changing at a faster and faster rate. Waiting for the administration to catch up means missing out the opportunity to deal with problems as they are happening.

Professor Dr. Breidenbach from the Humboldt-Viadrina: School of Governance, addressed this point by explaining the approach being taken by his institute in the application process and curriculum development. Applicants to this program are required to submit a relevant project proposal in order to be considered as a candidate for the program. Once admited, the student will follow a curriculum that is designed to cover the topics they will need to realize the project, with an emphasis on problem-solving. In doing so, the institute is encouraging two results: the realization of individual talents and the reintroduction of relevance into academia. If successful in the long-term, it would make a good model for other universities here looking to tap into the abilities of their students and to solve real world problems.

Curiosity based education: pros and cons

Curiosity’s role in the acquisition of knowledge was discussed repeatedly throughout the entire session. “Curiosity motivates people to learn” is a statement I think a large portion of the audience (myself included) could agree with. Many people, who have been frustrated with their own education, are especially attracted to the idea that if only curiosity is harnessed, we will all learn more and learn better. However, I would not say that curiosity will motivate all people equally. I think that some people, even from a young age, work more efficiently in a structured educational environment. So would an education system based heavily on individualism and personal curiosity truly benefit all? or only benefit certain types of people to accomplish certain types of tasks?

Examined another way, is unbridled curiosity the only aspect of the learning process worth utilizing, as unSchooling advocates? What about the importance of making mistakes that are recognized and corrected, of the challenging of your ideas by others (be it teachers or peers)? What of the ability to work and learn in a team (as advocated by Anna-Lena Schindl), of group consensus, to think critically, to accept other perspectives, to deal with the parts of life that are not all fun and games? I must say, some of the most revealing insights came to me through projects I never would have chosen to pursue on my own. I am grateful to the professors who encouraged me to examine ideas outside of my curiosity comfort zone.

Should we encourage curiosity? yes. Should we depend 100% on it as a motivator? Not such a good idea. I think we should be careful putting to much emphasis on curiosity above all else in the development of our future educational tools.

Overall, it was a truly inspiring discussion, I was happy to see wide range of ideas presented on one panel. The talk highlighted some of the most relevant challenges that all schools and universities across the globe are facing and has fueled more than a few subsequent discussions.  I recommend that the Berlin readers keep their eyes open for the next discussion!