It used to be said of teachers that they are the perfect products of the system. They might have technical concerns over a fine point of a course or doubts over the administration of a program but, in general, they are the true believers. It’s no wonder then that so many are starting to paint Salman Khan (the Khan Academy) with an apple and a serpent’s body, while posing Sebastian Thrun (Udacity) at the main gate of Stanford University ready to to nail his Ninety-five Theses to the door.
Prior to the rise of protestants like Khan and Thrun educators only had to occasionally fend off irate parents, bad student evaluations, intractable administrators, myopic government programs and gnostic home-schoolers. Now it seems they have to deal with other similarly perfect products of the system – renegade graduates from schools like MIT and Harvard who work in international finance and venture capital, some married to medical doctors or lawyers, others captains of industry – who are not only willing to voice their discontent about what is going on in classrooms but also do something about it. And what makes these folks more difficult to handle than the more normal educational John the Baptists that have come before is that they are well-funded, articulate, determined to make changes, not known to easily lose interest, and they have the full attention of the Media. They are known for their grit and for winning. And they represent the desires and interests of a staggeringly large percentage of educational consumers who feel that there is something very wrong with the ways things are getting done. Is it any wonder that so many orthodox educators are having such a hard time reading the signs and separating the medium from the message? Does the name Custer mean anything to educators today?
What we are seeing among reformers at present are the beginnings of a consumer-oriented reformation of the educational system lead by some of the most notable products of the system itself.
And by “educational system” one can take anything that involves learning, training and credentialing as subject to the ensuing shift so there is probably no place to hide.
Pro-consumer trends in education are growing and emerging in curious ways. Too many people who have been through schools, colleges, degree and training programs have emerged disappointed and dissatisfied. The experience is costly, time consuming, and often without personal or professional reward. Too much of what passes for education or training is merely a ritualized data dump, designed and delivered more for the convenience of the department, institution or instructor than for the benefit of the student. No meaningful design can be discerned, no compelling delivery can be expected, and engagement is not in the least a part of the program. Result: tedium, no real change, and the assertion by some that many degrees and professional certifications have become little more than educational indulgences sold to customers who spend the requisite time miming what was in another place and another time an authentic educational practice. Adding insult to injury, costs continue to climb even while training and educational producers attempt to resell the old wine in the new information-age bottles of online learning, virtual classrooms and massive all-you-can-eat open source course buffets. Bear in mind that some of these educational advances are brought to us by the same folks who championed computer-based training in the nineties and television as an educational medium before that. No matter. We’re all here for the show. Educational theater at its best.
Compounding the problem and accentuating the disconnect between educational producers and their “consumers” is the fact that learners come from an world of media and communications that undermine many of the basic assumptions of the nineteenth century classroom. They do not come from a world where there is a shortage of information. Furthermore, information is not sequestered in specialized silos of higher knowledge. The stuff is everywhere and the job of the instructional designer and teacher is to make it easier to get at and assimilate. This one simple gesture of service might be where Salman Khan excels the most and finds his greatest success. People like his concise and casual video tutorials. Many (perhaps most) use them voluntarily, spend time on the lessons and exercises, and report progress in their learning. The customer is voting with his attention. What should we as educational producers learn from this?
Learners have immediate needs and pragmatic goals in mind. They are not looking for long-winded linear expositions of subjects that start at postulates and end atop pedantic minarets of “higher” understanding. They want the chunk that fits today – right now – into the empty pane of their mosaic understanding. And it probably can’t or shouldn’t last for more than ten minutes, as Khan would attest. What this implies is that one of the first jobs of a teacher is curation. Teachers have to know the subject well both in terms of its theoretical underpinnings and history through to its applications. They need to “own the material.” And part of that owning is knowing which parts matter, how they fit and how to adjust the presentation to the audience.
Curation is key. Know what matters. Make it relevant. Make it meaningful. Make it fit.
The pedagogical emphasis is flipped in post-reformation classrooms (if classrooms exist at all). Control is handed to the student and there is no one right way to complete a course of learning. The nature of the reversal from the focus on the master to the that of the student (“sage on the stage” vs. “guide by the side”) is hardly new. One can find allusions and references to it in sources as wide ranging as the American mythologist Joseph Campbell and the media theorist Marshall McLuhan. By way of illustration, Campbell, a life-long teacher, noted that in the tradition of the East it is the student who seeks out the teacher with his questions and problems in hand, while in the West it is the teacher (the subject matter expert) who hands down the knowledge to the passive vessel and asks all the questions. No doubt a very different undertaking in either case.
Marshall McLuhan, a teacher and professor of literature, saw the “Orientalizing” of the West, and indeed the educational process, as a natural outgrowth of life in an electronic medium. The new learner does not enjoy the point of view and safe linearity of typography. The digital native inhabits an informational landscape more akin to an acoustic space that surrounds him isotropically, issuing updates at the speed of light. We are informational hunter-gathers roaming over expanses of data. Information overload, McLuhan observed, reverses into pattern recognition, another name for curation.
The other push coming from the educational reformation underway is the trend towards involvement. It will shortly become the new tacit standard for educational design.
This is right in step with what we know about life in the electronic world and the inclinations of the digital natives. Courses and presentations that focus on dumping disconnected facts are out. They’re old hat. The flipped or inverted classroom is in and showing signs of paying off.
Fostering involvement in the learning process means using new information while building new skills. Involvement means solving compelling problems and making things that have not existed. Doing and making are the new metrics of achievement. Knowledge and ideas are wonderful things. Knowledge and ideas transformed into a 3D object are better. We can all see it, feel it, touch it and assess its virtues (now and five or ten years later). Not so with most degrees and certifications from disparate sources.
This should come as a comfort to those who feel threatened or displaced by the likes of the Khan Academy or Udacity. The new protestants are going to move into project-based and experiential learning because they have to, but they are not there yet even if you consider the pioneering efforts of Peter Thiel and the Thiel Fellowship. It is, after all, where the highest order skills and thinking are displayed and they know it.
In the world of the academy the Ph.D. is the terminal degree in most disciplines. But in Silicon Valley and the world of the venture capitalist the terminal degree is the successful startup. Ideas, after all, are a dime a dozen. Implementation separates the great from the ordinary and is critical to success. Everything else is preparatory and sidebar to doing. This is right in line with the consumer-oriented drive towards relevance and real-world metrics. People want to do. And what’s more, in the process the consumer becomes producer in an act of complete involvement.
The Trouble with Khan Academy, by Robert Talbert.
Khan Academy: the Teachers Strike Back, Slashdot
How well does Khan Academy teach?, by Valerie Strauss
Why Corporate Training is Broken And How to Fix It, by Jay Cross
How Would You Like A Graduate Degree For $100?, by George Anders
PayPal Co-Founder Offers Students Scholarships To Leave College, by Robin Young, Here and Now
The Trouble With Online Education, by Mark Edmundsen
The Flipped Classroom Infographic
A new method of teaching is turning the traditional classroom on its head.
Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa
Academically Adrift, review by Scott Jaschik
Academically Adrift, review by University of Chicago Press Books
Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–and What We Can Do About It, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus
Contingent Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, review by Scientific American
How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It, review at Education News by Jimmy Kilpatrick
From MIT to Stanford, college classes where a startup is the final exam, by Christina Farr
A Core Curriculum To Create Engaged Entrepreneurs, by Cathy Davidson