A neo-Renaissance: Can the web transform traditional teacher-led models of education?

August 12th, 2012 by Briana Cummings

After the invention of the printing press, Europe experienced a Renaissance in art, science, and scholarship. Will the new learning structures made possible by the web allow a neo-Renaissance in our own time?

Fred Wilson, VC and principal of Union Square Ventures, recently assembled a group of “leading thinkers, educators, and entrepreneurs” to talk about reinventing the “traditional school model of education.” The web, says Wilson, “transfers control from institutions to individuals and it is going to do that to education too.”

How? According to Wilson’s group:

(1) “The student . . . is increasingly going to take control of his/her education including choice of . . . curriculum.” We now have not only the web, but also a rise in crowdsourced knowledge.

I think this would in many ways be a positive development. The most finely wrought curriculum in the world is of little value if it is not tailored to the needs, interests, and predispositions of the particular individual meant to learn it.

‎Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. – Albert Einstein

English: Primary School in "open air"...

English: Primary School in “open air”, in Bucharest, around 1842. Wood engraving, 11x22cm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do believe that there are some things we all should learn — how to endure unavoidable suffering with dignity, for example, how to treat others with kindness, how to file a tax return, how to make informed decisions at the ballot box. But some things cannot be taught in a classroom; some can only be learned through experience. For example, the new dean of the Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, recently described the new focus of HBS’s curriculum for training the “business leaders of tomorrow”: (1) emotional intelligence, (2) savvy about what is going on around the world, (3) an entrepreneurial imagination, and (4) character (including “moral humility” and responding well to pressure). How do you teach these in a classroom?

As Oscar Wilde said,

Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

Even things that do lend themselves to classroom instruction must be tailored to the particular student. Otherwise, one risks teaching a student something she either already knows or is not yet ready to learn.

A high school friend of mine who spent her last year of high school in England described a very different approach to schooling than what we had experienced in our American public school. In her British school, students were rarely evaluated (only a few times over the course of a year) and were rarely told what to read. Though expected to read, they were trusted to make their own choice about what to read, and to do the reading without someone checking over their shoulder all the time.

My friend said that she did more reading that year than ever before. She also said she probably didn’t read anything much different than she would have read if she had been reading the assigned reading list of a traditional American classroom.

Not only does a teacher-led curriculum fail to meet the student where she is; it also  exerts heavy conformist pressures. There is too much knowledge in the world for any one of us to learn all of it; by allowing students to follow individualized learning paths, we diversify the body of knowledge that we all collectively have — to our collective benefit.

English: So called "New Matura" from...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The notion of a student-led curriculum is completely counter to the policy climate in education today. The last couple decades have seen steady movement toward greater reliance on uniform (state- and national-level) curricula in all 50 states, and standardized tests to ensure compliance with these curricula. Are Wilson’s visions of an undirected web-based model utopian — at least for the foreseeable future?

(2) “Credentialing and accreditation in the traditional sense (diplomas) will become less important as the student’s work product becomes more available to be sampled and measured online.”

One problem with using the traditional metrics of school performance to try to predict a candidate’s suitability for a job is that school tasks and job tasks are two different beasts. There is some overlap, to be sure, but to what extent do they diverge? In other words, what is the error rate when using school performance as a proxy for job performance? How many candidates who would be wonderful at a job are screened out by these substitutionary selection tools? How many mediocre candidates are selected because they have a knack for achieving impressive test scores — like a fancy car that dazzles with a new paint job and shiny hub caps, but turn out to be clunky old piece of junk underneath?

A second problem with traditional diplomas is that, as a recent Harvard Business Review study found, is that the skills college graduates acquire during college have an expected shelf life of only five years. A college diploma is becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s rapidly evolving labor market.

What has long been true of entrepreneurs may become more widely applicable:

when you work on your own, you become “certified” as a professional as soon as somebody is willing to pay you. No university or company or governing body is going to show up one day and tell you that you’ve earned the right to set up a business doing whatever it is you do. You simply have to claim it for yourself. (Source: Michael J. Katz, “Advice for Solopreneurs: Declare Yourself a Competent Professional,” RainToday.com)

(3) Testing and assessment will be used more in adapting the teaching process, not just in sorting and selecting students. Wilson gives the example of how video games constantly adapt to the skill level of the player to create the perfect amount of creative tenstion.

Other changes I’ve seen predicted in other sources:

(4) Degree level learning will happen in months, not years — because of the technology-enabled access to all kinds of learning tools. A recent Harvard Business Review article on the skills gap in education suggested, “Instead of spending years in the classroom to learn an entire subject, give students and workers access to ad hoc courses and certifications. This will shorten the educational time commitment, thereby lengthening the time an individual has to actually master the skill on the job.” (Relatedly, see my recent post on emerging apprenticeship models in legal education.)

(5) Disposable learning will become the accepted norm because the rate of technological change will make most skills obsolete in a short amount of time.

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