Getting to There From Here in The Education Revolution

So I like to write a lot about where all of these big ideas in education are heading and what learning might look like in the future. Often I skip ahead by a good bit and seem to leave out several important steps. But that does not mean that I don’t think about these steps that we as a field need to take to get to this glorious revolutionary future. In reality, I think these steps are more fascinating. But I tend to focus on some of these steps in my work and studies so much that they rarely make it onto this blog. So, here it is – the steps I think we need to take (in broad strokes) to get from where we are now to this awesome future of educational bliss.

Assuming, of course, that Universities don’t die before all of this happens.

  1. Expand Student Community Options. If we want a student-centered educational future, then we need to build in support systems for students. Especially as education becomes more distance-oriented. We used to rely on dorms rooms and libraries and social events to allow students the opportunity to form support and mentor-ship relationships. With those physical spaces being non-existent for online students and irrelevant for non-traditional students, we need to build more opportunities for informal interaction using social media, online tools, and even formal course structures that push students to build portfolios and online presences more than just grades. This is something that I have started working on in a small-scale form with a peer mentor-ship program for a doctoral program (and there are many others out there). But I think we still need to see a greater movement around this idea, more on the level of MOOC-hype than “oh, yeah, I think I know some  people that are working on this” kind of reaction.
  2. Give Students Control Over their Online Identity. One barrier to student community is the disconnected nature of social media due to the existence of so many options. Why create a portfolio when you have Facebook and LinkedIn, right? But owning your identity online protects learners in many ways, not the least of which is the ability to take your identity with you rather than start over with every new social service that forms. Jim Groom covers a lot of the reasons why this step is important in this blog post. I’m glad there is major work happening on this front at the University of Mary Washington. Just wish more of the world was paying attention.
  3. Incorporate Informal Learning. Personal Learning Networks and Lifelong learning are not new ideas, so this is an area that we already see growing at many universities. But at some point it has to go beyond a “cool idea” with some loose administrative support to an actual, integral part of the learning experience. Sounds kind of weird to make informal learning a part of the formal learning process, so I’m not really thinking of that as much as finding ways to acknowledge the informal sphere and utilize it in the formal sphere. As students gain more control over their online identity, this will become more feasible and practical.
  4. Build a Course Taxonomy System. Ever noticed that most course descriptions and even syllabuses don’t really tell you much about how a course really ends up working out? Wish you could easily know how student-centered (or not) a course is rather than paper due dates? Ever want to know what percentage of time will be spent on group assignments across all of the courses you take so that you won’t get burdened down carrying dead weight in too many classes? With course types diversifying and changing more and more rapidly, we are in more need than ever of a way to classify courses according to what students will really, actually get when they take the course. This would tie into the development and evaluation of courses in order to ensure accuracy. This is another area that I have started work on, and hope to have some more concrete answers and ideas over the next couple of years.
  5. Deconstructing Courses.  This is already happening with what is sometimes referred to as cMOOCs – open courses that rely on connectivism and open learning. “Open” has basically devolved into another word for “free” in many circles, so I tend to refer to true”open” courses as ones that have deconstructed the learning experience into something beyond the typical “sit and soak” learning method. Yes, you do see that still prevalent in many xMOOCs. What I would like to see as a further evolution of open courses are courses that allow for multiple entry points through out the semester, or even courses that allow students to skip past what they already know. Different entities have experimented with this through the years, but for the most part they seem to still focus on the course level (aka, you can test out of a whole course rather than part of it). At some point I think this will have to go more mainstream to allow for true educational revolution.
  6. Re-focus Big Data. Love or hate it, Big Data is here to stay. I’m always a fan of more knowledge, and Big Data does give us more knowledge.  If schools want to use it to take a big picture look at statistics, that is great. If programs want to use it to identify student problems, great. But I am more interested in the projects that help students learn more about themselves beyond “hey, I’m about to start failing this course.” I briefly spoke to Dr. Kinshuk at CELDA a few weeks ago about a dynamic profile system they are developing for helping student determine their learning preferences. This is important because if students fill out their own questionnaire for learning preferences, they will skew the data to what they think looks good. But what if we could just gather data from their every day school work to determine that? Or to determine what course types they prefer (connecting back to taxonomies above)? If our schools become more student-centered, then why not give students the data to understand who they are?
  7. Deconstructing Degree Plans. Once we have all of these other ways to deconstruct learning and use data and websites to support student learning, the next thing we can do is go big and really mess with things.  If we have deconstructed courses to the point that they allow for students to take what they need as well as mix and match course components, why not take that idea to the degree level? This is not a new idea, but for the most part custom degree plans are given an anonymous sounding name like “University Scholar” and then are basically still a succession of courses that have to be taken as courses – even if students know some of the material already. What if we allow students to create self-selected paths through through the material for specific degrees? What if a chemistry major could put together a truly customized degree that allows them to skip what they got in high school and dig into advanced topics and research? What if the student was creating stream of study through basic topics, with new topics/courses starting and stopping based on what the student’s data tells them about their learning needs?
  8. Return to Deconstructing Courses More. I think once you deconstruct the degree plan, you can then return to deconstruct courses even more. In fact, it could be that the two would go in cycles – deconstruct the course some, then deconstruct the degree plans around them, then repeat. Eventually you would want to see cyclical course paths that allows students to circle back to concepts they didn’t get, or maybe even back to stuff they were really interested in in order to dig in deeper. On top of that, you could to see students of different levels in “courses” at the same time, so that students that have been taking a “course” for a few weeks could mentor those that just entered. I use the term “course” loosely now because, well, we would need a word for whatever this is… but it would not really resemble a “course” as much as a learning community or personal learning network.
  9. Open Up Research and Practicum/Internship Opportunities. Seems like this goes back to what we are doing today with learning, but often it seems like there is still a distinction between “academic” courses and “practicum” courses. For students that are more interested in a topic, there should be natural extensions into the world beyond the Ivory Tower – through participating in research projects with professors to working with professionals in the field. Or, for the non-traditional learner that is working and studying, why does the time spent on the clock at a job have to be separate from when they are “learning” in a classroom? Why not find ways to connect the two? Well, we don’t do that great of a job with it now because all of the previous steps have not fully come to fruition. But we still see places like Antioch College that are doing interesting things in this area, so I think that eventually we will see that happening more often.

I know that I had 11-12 steps in my mind when I first thought of this idea late last night.. so I apologize if I have left anything important out. I know there is nothing in here about certain technologies like gaming, mobile devices, and 3-D printers. All of those are important, of course, but they are still tools that support the larger view of education and this post is meant to try and start to put some structure around this emerging idea of the “future of education” in my head.

So what we have is a student-centered, open, deconstructed, unschooled, cyclical, connectivist, sociocultural customized learning structure for students to work with peer mentors, faculty, more knowledgeable others, other students, and industry experts to learn in ways that utilize informal learning, life experience, contextual learning, personal analytics, and personal learning networks. Man… how many buzzwords can I cram into one sentence?

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