January 30th, 2014

Rethinking Our Roles

Clay Shirky:

The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.

Those of us in the traditional academy could have a hand in shaping that future, but doing so will require us to relax our obsessive focus on elite students, institutions, and faculty. It will require us to stop regarding ourselves as irreplaceable occupiers of sacred roles, and start regarding ourselves as people who do several jobs society needs done, only one of which is creating new knowledge.

It will also require us to abandon any hope of restoring the Golden Age. It was a nice time, but it wasn’t stable, and it didn’t last, and it’s not coming back. It’s been gone ten years more than it lasted, in fact, and in the time since it ended, we’ve done more damage to our institutions, and our students, and our junior colleagues, by trying to preserve it than we would have by trying to adapt. Arguing that we need to keep the current system going just long enough to get the subsidy the world owes us is really just a way of preserving an arrangement that works well for elites—tenured professors, rich students, endowed institutions—but increasingly badly for everyone else.

Read the whole thing. 

There are similar pressures on the K-12 level that make supporting the current system difficult. To date, however, we’ve been stuck almost wholly in preservation mode. 

November 30th, 2012

Tornado of Change in Education

The Economist:

Moreover, the promise that an expensive degree at a traditional university will pay off rests on some questionable assumptions; for example, that no cheaper way of attaining this educational premium will emerge. Yet there is a tornado of change in education that might challenge this, either through technology or through attempts to improve the two-year community college degree and render it more economically valuable. Another assumption, which is proved wrong in the case of 40% of students, is that they will graduate at all. Indeed, nearly 30% of college students who took out loans eventually dropped out (up from 25% a decade ago). These students are saddled with a debt they have no realistic means of paying off.

I don’t think MOOCs or free courses or badges are necessarily the answer to the “problems” of higher ed and the huge investment required for an education. But I do think they represent important early innovations that if I were the parent of an elementary school kid right now I’d be pretty tuned in to. The traditional “college is the primary path to success” narrative is changing, and the options will no doubt increase.  

May 7th, 2012

The traditional degree, with its four-year time commitment and steep price tag, made sense when the university centrally aggregated top academic minds with residency-based students. Education required extensive logistics, demanding deep commitment from students worthy of being rewarded with the all-or-nothing degree.

But education isn’t all-or-nothing. College and its primary credential, the degree, needn’t be either. The benefit of modern, online education is that the burden of logistics and infrastructure are greatly reduced, allowing for the potential of a fluid, lifelong education model. The problem, to date, is that formal, online education is still being packaged in all-or-nothing degree programs, falsely constraining education innovation. The New Republic writes, “Online for-profit colleges haven’t disrupted the industry because while their business methods are different, their product—traditional credentials in the form of a degree—is not.”

Technology creates efficiencies by decreasing unit size while increasing utility. To falsely constrain anything to historically larger canons is to render technology impotent to do what it does best.


This echoes the lack of disruption that tech has brought to the K-12 world as well.

September 15th, 2011

"Is The Revolution Justified?"

That’s the title of a chapter in a new free e-book my Martin Weller titled The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice. And the answer to that question is, in a word, “maybe.” It’s a pretty interesting look at the research on digital technologies in a learning context (or lack thereof) and the tensions of the moment when trying to figure out exactly what all of this means for higher ed with, I think, some useful applications to the K-12 world.

One conclusion that I totally agree with concerns the knowledge that kids have around these technologies from a learning perspective:

Overall, as Bennett et al. (2008) suggest, there is little strong evidence for the main claims of the net generation literature, which they summarise as follows:

  • Young people of the digital native generation possess sophisticated knowledge of and skills with information technologies.
  • As a result of their upbringing and experiences with technology, digital natives have particular learning preferences or styles that differ from earlier generations of students.

Weller makes the point that 

There seems little real evidence beyond the rhetoric that the net generation is in some way different from its predecessors as a result of having been exposed to digital technologies. There is some moderate evidence that they may have different attitudes.

However, he also suggests that the influence of the Web on society is a large part of the reason schools need to consider changing:

But it is possible to at least conclude that there is significant activity online across a range of society, and the intersection of these activities (socialising, sharing, content creation, information seeking) has a direct relevance to education.

And one other interesting note. While dissatisfaction with schools is nothing new, Weller points out one big difference of this moment as compared to the past:

There is growing dissatisfaction with current practice in higher education – there seems little strong evidence for this. Probably more significant to the culture of education has been the shift to perceiving the student as a customer. There is certainly little evidence that the dissatisfaction is greater than it used to be, but what may be significant is that there are now viable alternatives for learners. Universities have lost their monopoly on learning, which reinforces the next point.

Higher education will undergo similar change to that in other sectors – there are some similarities between higher education and other sectors, such as the newspaper and music industries, but the differences are probably more significant. However, the blurring of boundaries between sectors and the viability of self-directed, community-based learning means that the competition is now more complex. [Emphasis mine.]

I’m really interested to see how those “viable alternatives for learners” play out. At some point, are we going to have move away from “college prep” and just make it “learning prep?”

Some interesting ideas to consider as we think about the scope and scale of change that we are considering.

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Welcome! I'm Will Richardson, parent, educator, speaker, author, 12-year blogger at Weblogg-ed and now here. I'm trying to answer the question "What happens to schools and classrooms and learning in a 2.0 world?" Best selling new book: Why School?s...order now!!

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