Op-Ed: Is education really innovating?

The Neil deGrasse Tyson of education urges stakeholders to look at the bigger picture when trying to predict the future.

I think I very audibly sighed into my overpriced latte when a recent keynote speaker at Campus Technology’s Boston-based conference waxed poetic about how MOOCs and online learning are innovations changing everything in education. “Not this again,” I cynically mumbled to myself. “Not someone relatively new at philosophizing about education that’s discovered Khan Academy.”

Doing a complete 180º from yesterday, I practically choked on my overpriced now-macchiato this morning when keynoter Stephen Downes, program leader of Learning and Performance Support Systems for the National Research Council of Canada, almost verbatim mimicked my thoughts out loud: “The things most people think are innovations or ‘disruptors’ are not these things at all,” he explained. “If you take a Physics lecture and put it online that’s not transformative. What’s transformative is what happens when you realize the Physics lecture is not what students are really there for in the first place.”

Downes’ gist of his presentation was that keeping the same mentality about what students need from postsecondary education and why they need it is never going to bring about true innovation and transformation. In order to bring about these buzz words so commonly used in the education arena these days, educators and stakeholders must first understand the nature of prediction and the tools needed to predict the future.

Prediction and the Future

“People say predicting the future is impossible, but we do it every day,” noted Downes. “I predict perennials will bloom again next spring. I predict barren trees this winter will bloom in the spring. I predict the corner bar will fill up around happy hour. These are all predictions made with a fair amount of certainty that will probably come true. However, change is the wildcard!”

According to Downes, what determines the success of one’s predictions is how well they understand and perceive change. For example, he said, a person might go to a tropical island because they believe the island is unchanging: no storms and sunny weather. But in reality, even if the scene doesn’t perceptibly change, it has completely changed: the water is cycled anew as is the air, et cetera.

“What you see often depends on what you’re looking for,” he said. “What you’re looking for often depends on what you currently value.”

Another aspect of change that’s critical to consider when trying to predict the future is in its two forces: drivers and attractors.

Drivers and Attractors of Change

Downes explained that drivers are what push someone toward an action, like a need. Attractors are what pull someone toward change, like a desire. Drivers also push someone from the past, while attractors pull someone toward the future. Resistance impedes drivers, while inertia impedes attractors.

“Many changes in technology that changed learning were the result of drivers; for example, a need to write and publish led to print technology, and a need for networks led to electronic technology. These came from outside education and impacted how we manage and deliver education, but they also reflected changes in what we value in education.”

Yet, he also cited many changes in technology that didn’t change learning, such as: TV, video and overhead projectors; portable classrooms; learning management systems; clickers; and Second Life.

“The problem is when you take the Physics class and put it in Second Life or take the classes’ information and deliver it via video, it’s still the same class,” he emphasized. “So we have to look at MOOCs and online learning similarly, asking the question: are these formats truly candidates for disruption? I would argue ‘no,’ with the backing from a quote by Steve Kolowich that says, ‘Stalled efforts to push MOOCs through the institutional membrane that surrounds higher-education credentialing have cast doubt on whether large-scale free courses will end up disrupting anything.’”

Downes also gave the example of Microsoft’s vision for educational transformation, which he said encompasses the laundry list of: learning communities, teacher capacity, efficient schools, personalization, physical learning environments, and better curriculum and assessment.

“I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning and goes ‘I really need a learning community today,’ or ‘gosh I really desire an efficient school.’” In other words, these abstract concepts are not transformative because they are simply new twists of the same existing systems, restyled solely for the purpose of keeping the existing system in place without confrontation.

So now that we know what isn’t innovating education, what is and why?

(Next page: Pondering education’s real innovations)

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