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Late last year, I was in a small conference room listening to Michael Saylor, the billionaire that is as close as it gets to a Steve Jobs figure, and, luckily for me, happens to reside in the Washington D.C. area. Saylor was discussing his latest book. Besides his compelling case for an American 21st century (when most Americans are predicting the opposite) I remember a point which can be paraphrased as if a 15 year old from India scores better than a Harvard graduate on an online certification test for a particular job, why would one hire the Harvard graduate? In one sentence Saylor exposed preconceptions behind not just national and educational barriers, but also age and experience level. Which naturally leads to the question of Harvard’s relevance, and in general to that of the educational establishment in the 21st century. To drive the point, Michael Saylor has recently started a free online university. Saylor’s university is not yet accredited, but what if entrepreneurs like Saylor start hiring these kinds of “graduates” over those from traditional universities? Clayton Christensen reinforces many of Saylor’s perspectives for how online education will disrupt the educational establishment.

Many of the current arguments made for the future of education involve technology. But what if we take technology out of the picture, is there still something to be said about the future of education? I propose there is.

If we can say anything about our “modern times” – yes, I am making an ironic allusion to Chaplin – the very nature of change is changing. It still takes four years to obtain an undergraduate degree, and people were already saying twenty years ago that all you’ve learned in college is obsolete within a just a few years of obtaining the degree. Others wisely said that knowledge is not the most valuable part of a college education, but rather learning how to learn. I believe the life-long learning concept, itself old by current pace of change standards, can be tweaked to give us insight into the future of education.

I believe the life-cycle of new knowledge is shortening dramatically, much shorter than the four years it takes to get a university degree. University degrees will be the norm for quite some time to come, but I believe, given the pace of change, certifications will gain in relative importance. Also shorter will be the cycle between acquiring knowledge and applying knowledge; I don’t believe either students or companies will afford to wait around for a few years while knowledge is passively acquired before being applied and put to good use. Also, tomorrow’s problems are interdependent, requiring multidisciplinary solutions, so a blurring of disciplinary divides is likely to emerge – see for example Roger Martin’s case for combining strategy and marketing. A final point is the flexibility to pursue a unique curriculum that fits the student’s unique personality, strengths and career interests.

Let me summarize my points above into a few design characteristics which I believe tomorrow’s curricula are likely to share: shorter time-span and highly modular courses that can easily be assembled around a student’s interests; holistic, multidisciplinary topics; short time span between knowledge acquisition and use or parallel knowledge acquisition and use – for example, executive education might include consulting in a bring your wicked problems to class fashion. Teaching has to also evolve to meet these characteristics, with a focus on class interactivity and two-way learning, participative (i.e. simulated) case studies, narrative and constructive dialogue. The Moses-like professor dictating universal truths uninterruptedly to a docile group of students better use some very fancy entertaining gimmicks and be full of charisma a-la TED talks orators.

As Michael Saylor rightly points out, “prospects are not good for people like the 100,000 algebra teachers in India who teach the same things over and over again – they are going to be replaced by videos and teaching tools delivered over mobile devices”. Saylor’s insight can easily be extrapolated to university professors teaching repeatable, standard knowledge. At risk are also the professors who only know one subject in an increasingly multidimensional and contextual world.

Before the craze of online education and mobile technology, Russell Ackoff had an even better point: turn the class upside down, and have the students teach; after all, the best way to make sure that someone understands a concept is to have him or her teach it to someone else. An anecdote from my father’s college days is illustrative: a professor jokingly complained to another that, after trying to teach a new concept twice, he finally fully understood it himself on the third attempt but the class still wasn’t getting it. I will end with the full wisdom of Ackoff’s remarks on education:

The educational system is not dedicated to produce learning by students, but teaching by teachers—and teaching is a major obstruction to learning. Witness the difference between the ease with which we learned our first language without having it taught to us, and the difficulty with which we tried to learn a second language in school. Most of what we use as adults we learned once we got out of school, not while we were in it, and what we learned in school we forgot rapidly—fortunately. Most of it is either wrong or obsolete within a short time. Although we learn little of use by having it taught to us, we can learn a great deal by teaching others. It is always the teacher who learns most in a classroom. Schools are upside down. Students should be teaching, and teachers at all levels should learn no matter how much they resist doing so. (source available here).