The Learning Economy and Why We Will Always Need Teachers

By Conor Burke-Gaffney October 6, 2015
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Academics don’t like to solve problems so much as they like to polish them. Having worked in education for 3 years, this was a truism that was often said, usually followed by a nervous chuckle. It was the realization that its assertion is, sadly, too true. The world of higher education has basked in the warm, protective limelight of being regarded as one of the last bastions of knowledge. Prior to the Internet, universities and colleges were well insulated from the changing technological landscape. Essentially, they were the gatekeepers to acquiring skills and knowledge that would allow candidates to succeed in a professional marketplace while simultaneously feeding the desire to understand, discover, and question—to learn.

Enter the World Wide Web. Today, at your fingertips, you have access to all of human knowledge if you know where to look. Right now, I can learn to code online; tomorrow I can learn how to build my own flamethrower; next week I can take a virtual tour of Czechoslovakia’s oldest libraries. Most importantly, I can do all this for free and at my own pace. Save for society’s regard for the value of a physical diploma, higher learning’s ROI is being threatened by a competitive landscape that has internalized the hard lessons of a crumbling bureaucracy and the stagnant delivery system that is education.

Despite the nuanced and very clear correlation between receiving an education and getting a job in your field of study, academics vehemently dismiss the contention that they are ‘training facilities’. They refer to themselves as learning institutions. And rightly so—they teach on numerous topics outside of more tangible or applicable ones, like philosophy and art history versus materials engineering and international business. Yet, even today’s most prestigious institutions teach weighted subject matter that falls on the theoretical side of the spectrum. It becomes a space where discussions are built on assumptions that occur in the vacuum of the subject matter itself; where practical application becomes abstract. The gap between desired skills in the market place and acquired skills in the classroom has been exacerbated. Technology is moving so quickly that 10 of the most in demand jobs today didn’t exist 10 years ago. 4-year technical degrees are struggling to make their final year curriculum relevant. What was once a gap is widening to a chasm.

However, this is only half the picture. Although important, what students learn may not be as influential as how they learn.

PARADIGM SHIFT

One of the archaic remnants of our current educational systems is the assumption that everyone learns at the same pace. The corollary to this is that we also learn in the same manner and age was good barometer for segregating learning levels. A century ago, this might have made sense but access to, and ubiquity of, free learning tools makes the likelihood that even the youngest of learners can expose themselves to new thoughts, ideas, and topics much earlier than any previous generation in history.

The outcome of this information explosion is more of a necessity than a consequence. The rise of educational channels like massive open online courses (MOOCs), MIT’s OpenCourseware, Khan Academy, and the creation of e-institutions like The Open University, Coursera, and edX are all testaments to the dearth of learning institutions who adapt to the changing educational landscape.

Enter the competency-based education (CBE) approach. The framework is designed to allow individual learners to advance at their own pace regardless of environment. This approach adapts to different learning abilities and has been shown to produce more efficient student outcomes. In particular, the Internet age has been a boon for online CBE providers. According to Michelle Weise, Senior Research Fellow in Higher Education for the Clayton Christensen Institute, “When subject matter is broken down by competencies—rather than by courses or subject matter—modules of learning can be easily arranged, combined, and scaled online into different programs for very different industries.”

New schools making their mark today are employing new approaches to the way learning occurs—how information is digested and how knowledge is acquired.

NEW FRAMEWORKS

To the credit of higher education, challenges facing learning institutions are not lost on its actors. Assessment, accreditation, professional development, reputation and rankings, funding shrinkages, attracting and retaining talent (students and faculty), and infrastructure investment are affecting all universities to some degree or another. In particular, there is extensive research on the practice of teaching and learning. The diversity of teaching solutions that address the challenges faced by university and colleges are as diverse as the ways people learn.

In the classroom, some teaching staff have co-opted interesting business practices and applied them to the exercise of learning. Just in time teaching (JiTT) is an approach that lends itself particularly well to leveraging the Internet for a richer classroom experience. Using pre-class, online assignments designed to address the different levels of understanding and competencies of their students, professors collect student responses prior to the class and use those responses to adjust the lesson plan, just in time, to address the specific gaps or advanced understanding of the material being covered.

The ultimate goal of JiTT is to move students from knowledge and understanding, through application and analysis to evaluation and synthesis. It is an effective framework that has produced marked results yet isn’t universally adopted. Without consensus and a track record of proven results, most educators uphold the entrenched status quo for fear of rocking the boat and failing. They often revert to a line of reasoning that requires more research or at least more “polish”, depending on where you’re sitting.

Which raises some interesting questions: who said that lectures were the best method for relaying information? Moreover, how are we sure that assessment in its current form is the best measure of understanding?

TURN-KEY SOLUTIONS

In the absence of a universal proven practice, educators have resorted to granular teaching approaches that suit their needs, their students, and their course material. This lack of consistency stems from generational teaching patterns—that is to say teachers teach the way they were taught. The confluence of generational teaching, tenure pressure, and administrative friction with faculty has produced a disparate infrastructure of teaching tools at both the classroom and institutional levels.

In the face of shrinking budgets, institutions are weary to make investments in systems that don’t benefit all students while simultaneously being handcuffed into only purchasing enterprise-level solutions that can integrate with their home-grown legacy systems that were never designed to be integrated with anything.

In the boots-on-the-ground scenario, administrators impose these systems on faculty while faculty are left to their own devices to get creative and adopt technological solutions that meet very specific needs. It’s all really quite messy and this is just the beginning of the rabbit hole.

Today’s traditional universities are seeking turnkey solutions that allow them end-to-end management of their entire operations: on-boarding of new students, from course planning and placement to assessment of pre-requisites and equivalencies; retention and engagement, from assessment and monitoring of attrition rates to recruitment opportunities; and everything in between from funding and accreditation considerations based on student assessment models, professional faculty development and course content management.

This behind-the-scenes dance of coordinating the integration of legacy systems and enterprise management solutions makes the jobs of teachers all that more important. As the front line to ensuring student success, they have to be the glue that keeps students engaged while absorbing and implementing technology in the classroom. The bottom line is that even the best technology will never replace good teachers.

THOSE WHO SEE, TEACH

The best teachers are always the ones that knew how to get the most out of their students. They challenge, they inspire, and they lay the path to achieve things that we never thought were possible. But most importantly, they are facilitators. They have the ability to take a group of impressionable minds and devise strategies to impart intellectual growth and curiosity.

The best teachers today are able to incorporate technology into the classroom in way that makes abstract concepts practical and applicable. This starts with an understanding, when used incorrectly, technology is a blunt tool that can be refined and sharpened to accomplish an infinite variety of tasks. And where technology fails, teachers have a way to reapply technological solutions in a different way that happens to meet an expressed need.

The look and feel of the new classroom often combines and recombines new ideas, new technology, and new understandings. The “flipped” classroom, blended learning, and e-learning incorporates some use of a technological component where class time is spent productively problem-solving and understanding processes, where out-of-class assignments are specifically geared towards the information gathering required for learning.

Orchestrating this is no easy task. This is why new technology schools like Brainstation offer such refreshing new approaches to the way innovative technology comes to the forefront. Using teachers who are actively pursuing careers in the technology space; using of innovative software solutions to track engagement that directly leads to enrolment; addressing market needs born directly from the trends that are identified from the very people they employ—these are signs that tomorrows classroom is here.

Combine this with the agility to continuously improve and throw off the shackles of the traditional educational model, new schools will need new teachers to help motivate and inspire the next generation of thought leaders. And what better place to get these teachers than the very market they are trying to serve.

Conor Burke-Gaffney

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Conor is a Senior Consultant, Strategy & Technology at Konrad Group