Technologies will re-place higher education. I didn’t say “replace;” I said “re-place.” Higher education will still be here, but our “place” — our role in the education of people — will change.
People can learn without being taught. Technologies can do a better job of conveying information and developing understanding than can lectures. The cost of postsecondary education is high and rising, and economies around the world are troubled. Most students leave college with significant debt, and having a degree no longer guarantees employment. Clay Shirky, in a recent article titled, “Your Massively Open Offline College is Broken,” proposed:
“Things that can’t last don’t. This is why MOOCs matter. Not because distance learning is some big new thing or because online lectures are a solution to all our problems, but because they’ve come along at a time when students and parents are willing to ask themselves, ‘Isn’t there some other way to do this?’”
Yes. There are several better ways to handle at least part of “this.” Learners are finding these ways and employers are beginning to respect them. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other technologies are making content and knowledge-level assessments available, and a competency-based approach to education and “digital badges” are increasingly used in place of grades and transcripts to communicate the outcomes. The dissemination of knowledge and the development of understanding at a basic level can be handled more efficiently, less expensively and better by technologies other than “class,” without our help, and at almost no cost. It’s hard to compete with free, and we shouldn’t want to.
On the bright side, there isn’t a better way to promote the development of skills and attributes that make people successful in the world, and there may not be for some time. The development of skills and attributes requires multiple opportunities to perform in front of a competent reviewer and solid assessments that provide comprehensive feedback to inform improvement. MOOCs can’t do that, and that’s what really matters. Knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient, for success. Employers are looking for people who can and will do things, and do them well. They will be looking to higher education to certify that our graduates can perform, not pass tests.
Any teacher who can be replaced by technology deserves to be.
There. I said it. And I’ll stand by it.
I first heard that from my colleague, Paul Welliver, in the late 80s when people thought that computer-based instruction would replace teachers, and I’ve been saying it ever since. If all that teachers do is convey knowledge and basic understanding of a subject, technologies can do that job better and more cheaply. We need to move up the hierarchy of educational outcomes, to “re-place” ourselves, accepting the more difficult aspects of education as our domain and leaving the less-demanding jobs to technologies and peers.
The development of higher-order skills and the deep understanding of complex topics will become the primary business of higher education. We (those of us at institutions that survive) will need to understand the difference between disseminating, coaching, assessing and certifying, and we will need to get very good at the activities that require our expertise. We will need to understand that tomorrow’s learners will be less and less likely to come to us for long, multi-year engagements that separate them from family, work and other responsibilities and opportunities. We will need to work with others to define the skills and attributes that are required for people headed for different futures, help people develop them and certify their competency. And we’ll need to offer learners experiences that fit within their evolving lives. A one-size-fits-all education is a thing of the past.
It’s going to be a bumpy decade, but I’m convinced the product that emerges will be much better than what we offer now.
In 10 years, more people will come to the colleges and universities that successfully re-place themselves, but for shorter periods of time and, increasingly, via technologies such as Skype, Adobe Connect and Google Hangouts. Literally tens of millions more learners will be able to consider college-level education, because they will be able to accomplish the basics on their own, at low cost, thus reducing the overall cost and time to complete a degree.
The role of the teacher changes, becoming more focused on the development of skills and attributes and on high-quality assessment and comprehensive feedback, rather than on the dissemination of content. We will be certifying sets of competencies that are much smaller than degrees and allowing learners to assemble these smaller credentials (badges?) to document readiness for the roles they seek.
This metamorphosis will be painful and not all institutions will survive, but the result will be a system that is focused on more important outcomes, is more efficient, less costly and more accessible.
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