What Should Education Systems Focus on in the Future?

In the not too distant future, we will live in a world that will be far more connected and interdependent than we are today. Broadband connectivity, data storage and availability of access devices like tablets and laptops will be common. Information and content are already freely available – this will become even more so. Current buzzwords including online learning, virtual classrooms, remote teaching and MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) will be main stream. Facts can be easily searched for and obtained from free search engines and therefore knowledge of facts will become less important than understanding of concepts and skill development. As Howard Gardner says in his book about the five minds of the future – synthesizing skills and creating skills will command a premium. Synthesizing skills includes sifting through vast amounts of data and coming up with actionable insights. Creating skills involves going one step further – developing something that does not currently exist which is of use to society. And underpinning all of that is ‘discipline’ – the ability to become an expert in an area through focussed and consistent training. The broad education system – be it at high school, college or training programs at work, needs to cater to this future which requires a radical rethink of traditional conception and delivery.

 

A Five Minutes Video Based Learning is What We Want!

Thanks to YouTube which serves ubiquitous video content with powerful search capabilities, people have learned to expect short five minute video of clippings of exactly what they are looking for. The long one hour lecture one sits through to understand concepts is a format that is less popular. Increasingly, the best companies and education providers are realising this and tailoring their content to suit these needs. Imagine a doctor being able to search a video repository for a particular surgical procedure to view the key aspects prior to a similar surgery he has scheduled; or a shoe retailer who wants to know the advantages of a newly launched shoe brand vs. the competition who can access a video outlining the benefits; or students in school searching for a specific explanation for a particular concept – Khan Academy being a prime example of one provider who focuses especially in this area. The delivery of such content has become easier too. Proprietary video content can be developed with readily available tools. The content then can be hosted on a secure video repository to enable easy access when needed and the content can be password protected so that access is restricted.

 

The Power of Virtual

As with every new invention in technology, the advent of online learning, digital content, e-learning etc are raising expectations of great change. Is this a temporary fad or a significant change in the way we learn? History is not very encouraging. When TV was first invented, experts predicted the advent of classes through this medium taking over the world by storm. It did not happen. Then came the CD ROMs holding massive amounts of information. Multiple text books could now be converted into one single CD. Of course the experts predicted the move to CD ROM based learning. Again it did not happen. People realised that just because a new tool gives a new medium for reaching students, it does not mean that the students are ready to use it. Libraries and books have been in existence for hundreds of years. It did not mean that people actually read those great books. So, does this mean that technology enabled learning will go the way of its predecessors?

We believe the answer is no – technology enabled learning does enable a paradigm shift for a few specific reasons. First, online virtual training enables scale in niche areas. For example an expert in pediatric cardiology in the past would have very few students available in their proximity that it was not viable to provide training. With an online programme where experts can access learners across the world literally, all of a sudden it becomes viable to run the program. Students sitting in Tamil Nadu can have French classes taught by a native speaker from Paris. Students in the USA as well as in India can attend classes at the same time. Immaterial of physical distance, students and teachers from across the world can be connected seamlessly and cheaply. The best professors’ classes from one campus in IIT or MIT can simultaneously be broadcasted and students can participate in all the affiliate colleges.

The second distinct advantage of online learning is the ability to cater to learners of different ability. For example, increasingly in the top organisations, lectures are recorded and stored in an easily searchable database for learners. In the future this will be a requirement for every education institution or organisation. These recorded lectures can be viewed any number of times. Learners can learn at their own pace and assessments can dynamically provide challenging questions based on ability. Khan Academy in the USA is an example today – in the future every good organisation will have its own version locally serving its target population.

Leading education institutions like IIM Bangalore, ISB Hyderabad are leading the change with their cutting edge solutions. Have they replaced their offline lectures or will they replace them? We think the answer is no. What the best organisations have started to do is blending the delivery of content. Blending is the mixing of traditional physical training / teaching with online teaching. For example, an executive MBA program attendee will have a series of online lectures and assignments after the first week of physical class. This enables her to go back to her work while continuing to attend lectures in the evenings. Medical colleges can invite professors / experts on specific topics from other universities to take virtual classes. Hard to reach remote areas where teachers are difficult to get and retain can have a virtual model of delivery for selected subjects. Dispersed location enterprises like retail outlets can train their managers without spending on expensive logistics. Even individual experts – for example an expert in photography can deliver online courses to interested photographers across geographies. Every expert can be a part time teacher and can pass on the knowledge they have gained to the next generation of youngsters.

Eventually, as every organisation now has a website, they will also have a technology enabled learning and collaboration platform.