Rebooting the Education System

Preparations for the school year are now in their final phase and it is always around this time, when courses are being designed, readings selected and assignments dreamed up, that thoughts turn to the “what if” possibilities for education in the future. As someone who straddles the academic and the business world I continually see opportunities for each to enrich and enliven themselves with the practices, values and performances of the other. Yet, it is the education sector whose zeitgeist seems to be increasingly tarnished. Costs keep going up, for students especially, and quality (although the measure of this seems dubious) seems ever to ebb. There are serious political questions at play here that need to be addressed, but for the moment let’s leave those to a (hypothetical) future post. Below are some thought-starters for (re)booting an education that is not only adequate to shape the future but a catalyst for it.

Micro-hacking education

Circumvent structure with imagination and potential. As anyone who is routinely part of a higher education community student, teacher or administrative worker  knows, our institutions are crippled with a pervasive bureaucratic goo that bogs down even the smallest changes and innovations in multiple layers of paperwork, committees of approval and administrative foot-shuffling. Overturning this system is impossible for the moment, instead think about smaller strategic hacks or circumnavigations that rewire events and possibilities for students and teachers.

Two examples. One, make courses free-form and continually experimental by allowing professors to imagine courses and teach them how they want instead of pushing them through years of bureaucratic approval processes that remove the liveliness, inspiration and timeliness of courses. Two, let students take whatever they want and then give them a degree (more on this later).

Distributed Nodal Networks: The dissipation of the campus and the rise of the virtual

The success of iTunes U points us gently in the direction of rethinking the physical and locational presence of universities and colleges as geographic gathering points on a map. While there are significant advantages to attending university in person the sociality and interpersonal interactions that compose learning cannot be underestimated the virtual potentials of higher education have been radically under imagined. So far we have seen the use of the Web as simply an alternative delivery mechanism for a traditional university experience: lectures. It strikes me though that, with a little effort, a virtual experience could be an incredibly rich learning environment replete with multimedia experiences and the ability to interact and converse with some of the very people, issues, events and places one is studying.

What then does the campus of the future look like when we are connected to whole worlds through our laptops and, even, our phones? Of course, in the sciences and other hands-on disciplines, there will still be a need for labs and other experimental facilities. But what about the social sciences and humanities? The opportunity is there for rethinking in a dynamic fashion the gathering points and nodes of learning, dissipating the learning process across time and space while avoiding atomization.

Educational flex-space time

If the location of learning is now becoming virtual what about the time of education? For many, the experience of four years devoted exclusively to education no longer makes sense either practically, nor pedagogically. Increasingly we are becoming life-long learners, plugged into educational resources with varying degrees of intensity, feedback and output. What form can a permanent or enduring educational system take? Enabled by technology, and demanded by a world that is changing at an ever-increasing pace, an education system is needed that is flexible in at least three dimensions: the time-spaces in which courses are offered, the notion and times of course completion as well as challenging the views of completion and certification.

With a little effort, a virtual experience could be an incredibly rich learning environment replete with multimedia experiences and the ability to interact and converse.

The end of the lecture

As fond as I am of hearing myself speak continuously for two hours the time has come to rethink the main delivery mechanism of the university. The lecture has long been the key signifier of the university education, the download of knowledge from to its eager and willingly attentive constituents as well as its source of elusive highbrow exclusivity. But does the two or three hour lecture still have the same relevance in the context of how information is culturally encoded in today’s world? Does it still impart the same set of skills in listening, thinking and writing that it is supposed to? Are today’s learners and the questions they engage with still suited to this pedagogical form? Perhaps it is worth rethinking this educational holy cow and consider other forms that mimic the intensity and magic of the lecture in a format that is more dynamic, interactive and less hierarchical. 

The end of the degree in something/rethinking credentialing

Does the degree as it currently constituted still make sense? In the university setting the awareness of the waning relevance of disciplines is far behind the world outside its walls where the erosion of boundaries between cultures and places is only surpassed by the erosion of those between business, science, technology and the arts. What does a degree in everything look like for that matter? Sticking to disciplinary specialties, degrees signify a knowledge of something, but that something is often, if not always, inadequate to the demands and realities of the “real” world where the mash-up is moving from the periphery into the center of our cultural lens and ways of being.

The binary between thinking and doing (thought and action) needs to go

A classic liberal arts education teaches us to recognize the conditions and limitations in which we exist. Yet universities have long perpetuated a false dichotomy between thought and action, between the theoretical and the practical which has resulted in a number of very rigid cultural narratives and institutional practices, one of which is the artificial separation of the practical and hands-on disciplines and the disciplines of the “idea.” Because of this division, the capabilities and potentialities of humans have been limited, curtailed in the binary constraints between theory and action, practice and politics. An educational system of the future needs to foster a creative implosion or collapse at these frontiers.

the author

Dr. Marc Lafleur

Dr. Marc Lafleur is VP, medical anthropology at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.