The Finnish approach to education is our focus for this two-part series. Finland has received a lot of attention lately for its top performance in comparative, international assessments of its students and schools.
In this episode, we interview Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, a world-renowned expert on the country’s approach to education. He has worked as schoolteacher, teacher educator, researcher and policy advisor in Finland and has examined education systems around the world. His expertise includes school improvement, international education issues, classroom teaching and learning, and school leadership. He is the author of the best-selling book, Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland, and numerous professional articles and book chapters.
We ask, what works in the Finnish approach to schooling that we can learn from? What misconceptions are out there? And, to take what we’ve learned from Finland a reality elsewhere, would it take a revolution? Or is there another way?
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Last week, the Peruvian television program “Umbrales” (TV Perú) broadcasted a program on knowmads in Peru and Latin America. Dr. John Moravec was interviewed along with Dr. Cristóbal Cobo and other local and international experts on what the emerging knowmad paradigm means, and what the implications are for countries such as Peru.
“I firmly believe that by studying yesterday’s futures we can get the most honest look at any given generation’s greatest hopes and darkest fears.”
Matt Novak began his blog Paleofuture in 2007 as part of his work in a college writing course. Since then, Novak’s analyses and critiques of technological and social retrofutures have been featured in numerous publications including BBC Future, Slate, The Atlantic.com, and Smithsonian. On May 17th, 2013 Novak announcedPaleofuture is moving to Gizmodo.
Novak describes Paleofuture as a blog that, “takes a look at past visions of the future. Everything from flying cars, jet packs, and meal pills, to social futures like utopias and dystopias, primarily from the second half of the 19th century onward to the year 2000.” When Novak explains his work he often leads with examples of technological retrofutures but he has also “tried with [his] blog to explore other aspects of futurism that aren’t just gee whiz flying car stuff.”
Through his work the most important lesson Novak has learned, “is to remain skeptical at all times of trying to classify an entire generation.” For example, Novak researched the Apollo Space Program and discovered that in the 1960s the program was not very popular. In fact, “public approval of the program only once breached 51% of adult Americans and that was right after we landed on the Moon.” Novak theorizes that because the people who are telling the story now of what the space program was like then are baby boomers who were children at the time of the Apollo program, their nostalgia has helped to spread the incorrect narrative that at the time, “everyone was behind it.”
Novak has a talent for gleaning historical insights from futuristic inventions. For example, meal pills, a complete meal in pill form, according to Novak, “have their roots in late 19th century feminist novels.” They were designed to help “liberate women from the drudgery of the kitchen.” Novak describes meal pills as an example of how futures thinking can be used to talk about hard issues in a more lighthearted way.
This year, Novak gave a talk at SXSW on “Edison vs. Tesla & the myth of the lone inventor.” Novak said his talk was inspired by a Nikola Tesla cartoon by The Oatmeal, which Novak recalled, “was pretty entertaining, but it was filled with all kinds of errors.” During our conversation, Novak often returned to the importance of remaining skeptical to avoid oversimplifying historical narratives. Referring to the Tesla cartoon Novak noted, “anytime anyone makes the claim that a single man, or single person, invented something so broad as our entire world, or our entire electrical system, you obviously have to be quite skeptical.”
As part of a Paleofuture special series, The Jetsons at 50, Novak examined the concept of robot teachers. The idea of robot teachers was so prevalent and concerning at the time that the Oakland Tribune wrote an article in 1960 titled the “NEA allays parent fears on robot teacher,” in which the National Education Association said “it is true that teaching machines are on their way into the modern classroom and today’s youngsters will have a lot more mechanical aids than his parents. But the emphasis will still be on aid — not primary instruction.” Novak explained that a similar conversation happening now with online learning, “it seems that every broadcast medium has gone through a really wide-eyed techno-optimist stage… the Internet is obviously the next step in that.” Novak is partially interested in how people can be so optimistic about a new technology, but then, “it disappoints in a lot of ways […] it turns out you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, you take what works and implement that as a tool, just as all technology is a tool.”
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with award-winning author, educator, and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff. Our discussion focused on his new book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now,” his advisory role at Codecademy, and the impact of Present Shock on education.
Most simply, Present Shock is the human response to living in a world where everything happens now. It’s a real-time, always-on existence without a past or a future, without origins or goals. It’s just the present. This presentism, or Present Shock, really effects us on a person level, on a social level, politically, economically, and even spiritually, in terms of how we organize our experience in life.
My concern is that instead of really seizing the new now of the moment we tend to get disoriented. We respond to the insistent pings on each of our devices. We kind of chase the moment that Twitter or Facebook or one of these devices offer, forgetting that we’re the ones who are living in real-time. The devices and the software is what’s chasing us. It’s really about, how do we seize the true present that’s being offered by a digital age, by our liberation from an industrial age clock and how do we avoid the kind of faux-present of the insistent pings of the digital universe.
What are the challenges and opportunities for formal education resulting from Present Shock?
Well, I mean there are a bunch. One of them, one bias of the digital age is that it gives us more choice. So rather than following the prescribed paths of the masters of the various academic disciplines, someone can go online and get the course or the information and what they want when they want it. You don’t have to go through architecture 1, 2, and 3 to get to architecture 4. And while there is some tremendous liberation associated with that there’s also something you lose in that. What you lose is the path. You become very focused as a student on the data and getting that piece of information as if that’s the thing that’s valuable and you lose the centuries of thought that went into how these things were arranged.
I was in the library and I was thinking about the card catalogue the other day, and I understand that the digital search lets you find the thing you want right away and you get the number and you go and you get it. But what you lose when you lose the card catalogue is not just an alphabetical listing of the books by title and by author, you’re also losing the subject area. You could go into a card catalogue and find the area that you’re in and look through the cards that are in that section, and they’ve been put there, they’ve found their way there over centuries of the organization of information by people. It’s not to say that it should cripple you that now you have to engage with information the way that the greats have been doing it for centuries, but there is centuries of knowledge and insight that went into that. As education becomes more à la carte as kids get what they want when they want it. As we use Spark Notes to do Shakespeare because we have authority over our time and I can decide to not really read it, but just read this paragraph. I lose a sense of the journey. It becomes very results oriented. That’s a big, big challenge.
The other biggie is, as we spend more of our time fetishizing these devices these new avenues for education, I feel like the human bonds of the classroom, actual people who are in the same room together, that loses it’s cohesiveness, it loses it’s power. The big challenge for people today is doing very simple things like maintaining eye contact, generating rapport with other human beings. Understanding how to work with others, that’s the kind of stuff you can get in a classroom and you can’t get on a Wii when you’re at home. I’m really encouraging educators not to use classroom time to have kids all staring at the SMART Board or at their iPads, and instead to use that valuable few hours of class time you have helping kids and students orient to one another in real space because 94% of communication that happens non-verbally is starting to get lost as our noses get closer and closer into our smart phones.
In 2001 you hosted and co-produced the Frontline documentary “The Merchants of Cool.” The film describes the techniques used by corporations like MTV to research and sell products and lifestyles to young adults. You close the film by saying, “So is there anywhere the commercial machine won’t go? Is it leaving any room for kids to create a culture of their own? And what if they turn and fight? The battle itself is sponsored and packaged and sold right back to them.” In 2013 what is the status of “The Merchants of Cool,” and young adult’s ability to fight back?
I guess “The Merchants of Cool” are here and are bigger and better than ever. Instead of watching kids, “The Merchants of Cool” at that time were sending out little spys and scouts and kids with Polaroid cameras and video cameras to really try to record youth culture and then feed it back to itself putting the things that they found into ads and TV shows you kind of sell kids back to themselves. There was this feedback loop between the trend hunters, the cool hunters, and the kids. And now kids through social media they deliver themselves directly to the marketer. You know the marketer doesn’t need to observe them, the kids are already posting everything up there, so where in the old days, the quaint days of 2001 the marketer would have to go into the kid’s bedroom and to see what posters he’s put up on his wall and how and photograph them. Now the kid is putting these things right up on their Facebook wall so they are broadcasting everything their new form of cultural expression. And when you can see what works and what doesn’t by how many “likes” that thing is getting. It’s funny I’m just starting on an update to “The Merchants of Cool” and I’m calling it “Generation Like,” and the idea is that kids are living in a world where their own self expression now is what they like. It’s all relative in the sense that they are what they like and what they like matters to them really almost exclusively for the power it has to get them “liked” themselves. It has sort of moved into a hyper version of its former quaint self. And there’s just as many millions of dollars going into it, but now it more into the big data analysis of every key stroke that these kids make in order to predict where they are going and what they are going to be doing next.
In Chapter 1 you discuss the collapse of narrative. It got me thinking about the American Dream the idea that you work hard, you play by the rules, you go to college and this is the gateway to the middle class. What does Present Shock have to say about our classical notions of the American Dream?
The American Dream is kinda over. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, I think largely it’s a good thing. We are no longer Great Gatsby staring at the green light trying to attain the unattainable. The American Dream, while on the one hand it was great for motivating the progress of the 20th century and building factories and getting us all to do lots of stuff, it was false. We are there, and we don’t have pension funds, we don’t have 401K plans, we don’t have the stock market that is going to grow infinitely into the future, we don’t have new territories to expand to, we don’t have new conquests to make. We are in a different time of a world now where we understand that growth is the Booby prize, growth is a requirement of central capital that’s lent out at interest that needs to be paid back, growth is not necessarily a sign of health. New housing starts are good for the economy the way we currently have it configured, but they are not good for the environment, and we already have more than enough houses, we need new housing starts the way we get them is by tearing down other houses that we don’t let people live in because they don’t have jobs which we can’t find for them to do because we already have more than enough stuff. On the one hand, the idea of education as a way, I’m going to do this so I can follow on this path and get this job and do that thing, that doesn’t make so much sense anymore. Because it’s false, and it’s kind of a lie and a lot of people who have gone through the whole college thing and ended up $300K in debt and without a job, or a way to pay it back, or a way to go into bankruptcy even, they understand that full well. I think what that does though is that it changes the nature of education towards something that is really frightening for educators but is, what is it about right now. Am I learning? Am I enriching myself? Am I becoming a smarter more innovative human being. That’s what’s going to serve you in the real job market of tomorrow. By the time the corporation has told the city college what skills it wants from its future workers you are going to graduate and those skills will have changed anyway. You are going to have a bunch of people coming out of college who know how to use the Excel spreadsheet when the company has moved on to Oracle something-or-other. It doesn’t really work that way. The only way to educate yourself in this world, in a world that is gonna be more and more about freelancing is to actually acquire the skill of skills acquisition, to learn how to think critically about the world and digital media environments that you are spending all this time in. So it’s a much deeper kind of a learning in some sense. It’s more Liberal Arts not less.
Douglas, you mentioned student loan debt briefly earlier. Current estimates suggest that American students currently have somewhere between $900 billion and $1 trillion in outstanding student loans. Given that tremendous burden placed on the next generation, what are your thoughts on the cost of college, and our process of paying for it through private and federal loans?
It’s very tempting for people to say look, why do college when I can go do whatever, one of these Coursera kinda things for free. And I can just get the course and do it. On one level it’s a healthy challenge to the university’s that are costing $50K, $60K a year for what? I mean I totally get that. The real reason why university educations are supposed to cost a lot, or why they do cost a lot, is that your money is not just supporting what you are learning, it’s supposed to be supporting the research. You know you are coming to a research institution, they are doing Tier-1 research and they are using some of your money to do that. It’s hard to justify, right, because the direction we have to go in, is to really bifurcate or divide the skills acquisition nature of education from the deep nature of education. Skills acquisition, if you want to learn code or something, you can learn that on Codecademy for free right now. I’m an advisor there, it’s a great program, it’s absolutely free and you can go pretty darn deep into it, you know as much as any regular person can handle. You know, if you are then going to become a computer scientist then you might want to go to a real school for computer science and actually go into that. But we can in some sense free up the university from that basic skills creation. You know turn it into less of a consumer zone, of aww I’m going to go and get these skills and go get that job. That’s not what that’s for, that’s trade school. Or that’s what those Barrons books are for in the Barnes & Noble. You can really self-educate basic skills like that, or apprenticeship, with an electrician or someone else, or the way they train policemen, that’s not a college education, that’s something else. And it would free up these institutions for people who want to get that. It’s more, at that point, I’m sorry to say it’s either it’s going to be a luxury or it’s going to be something that is publicly paid for. I’m looking at teaching at the university now and I’m having a hard time as a I guess a Leftist and an Occupier. I’m having a hard time justifying going to some $50K liberal arts college and teaching the wealthy or the indebted. Where I can go to hopefully Queens College or City College, kids, I mean men or woman are spending $5K or $6K a year to go to a Tier-1 university. At that point how can I justify the expense. The research is being paid for by, or should be by corporations or governments anyway so I just have a hard time asking for that much money from people.
I’m glad you brought up Codecademy. What have you learned so far from working on the project?
Well the biggie that people aren’t getting yet, because I’m reading like Tom Friedman and all these folks in The Times and they are writing about MOOCs, and I guess Codecademy counts as a MOOC to some extent, but Codecademy only teaches code. They are not trying to teach philosophy, you know, to teach the Socratic method online seems really sad when folks like Aristotle and Socrates were talking about how you have to be in person, conspiring with people, literally breathing with a small group of people in a room in order to get anything so I feel like it’s a site specific education place. It’s really cool for teaching code. It’s a great environment to teach code, better than a seminar room but it’s not a great environment to do a seminar I think. It’s a substitute for it. Just as it’s not a great environment to do Sabbath, or fellowship. I wouldn’t want to go to an online AA meeting. I think you got to be in the room with the people. A seminar is more like an AA meeting than it is like a lot of things, in some sense. The other big thing I’ve discovered is that the thing that being disintermediated is not the student to the teacher. It’s not like, they think that what’s happening is that we’re getting the curriculum out of the way so now students can get right to the teacher directly through all this stuff, through the Internet rather than having to go through the university. And I don’t think that’s it, I think the real possibility here is not for students-to-teacher learning to have a new venue, but to see the birth of genuine peer-to-peer teaching and learning. You know what Codecademy is, is much less of a place where people have access to a teacher, they have access to one another. You know the curriculums are written by other members of the community, so you end up with communities of learning because the Internet is a peer-to-peer place. It’s not the place to do hierarchical learning which still needs a role. You know I want to go sit in a room with Stanley Fish, you know and find out about how poetry works or how reception theory works, or someone wants to sit with me and really understand the biases of media, that’s something that happens in a room. And yes, in a lecture, which should not go out, in a seminar, in a preceptorial, that’s what those forms do and just because we have a new technology through which to disseminate information, doesn’t, and which through which to forge community, doesn’t mean it replaces every other form of human contact.
In 2011 you published “Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” Two years later have you thought of any additional commands or revisions to your previous ten?
The big idea I want people to get from that, you know beyond the individual commands which are kind of convenient ways of talking about the biases of digital media, I want people to get that they are in command. It’s just that digital media, the word digit even goes back to the fingers, you know these are digital media, they’re media that you can kind of use with your hands, you are not just sitting with your eyes watching something like TV or some other pre-digital media, these are media through which you make things. Some of the biases I didn’t discuss because I didn’t want the book to be all Marxist, is that this is really bias to production more than consumption. The iPad maybe is biased towards consumption, the iPhone, that the newer tools without keyboards are really turning much more into viewing screens, entertainment devices, easy ways to buy things, and to stream media. But they are not these great tools of production like computers are. It’s exciting to me that there are these machines with keyboards, and printers, and uploading speeds in everybody’s homes. This is the way we can make stuff and trade stuff. So this technology is biased towards transaction, towards real people transacting, creating value, and exchanging that value with one another. And I feel like companies are intentionally repressing that bias of this media because it’s so destabilizing to the kinds of companies that really depend on us being consumers and not producers.
I’m interested in your thoughts on the future of human and technological evolution. In chapter 5 called Apocalypto you discuss your skepticism of the concept of The Singularity. What is your biggest critique of The Singularity?
My biggest critique of The Singularity is that it’s just not true. Some of the best minds of my generation, or I guess the generation older, that slightly older cyber theorist type people, the technology theorists, they seem to have to look at this as a story. They can’t understand that technology is just here, it’s just now, it’s just what’s happening. It doesn’t necessarily have to be going somewhere. There inability to contend with a presentist world, where the world is actually happening now has led them to take the old Christian apocalyptic overlay and stick it on top of this presentist timeline. It’s going somewhere, so where is it going? Well it depends on what technology wants. They are humanizing this while they are dehumanizing us saying OK, technology is on this inevitable quest towards great states of complexity, and once it’s more complex than we are humans beings no longer really have a role. We can sort of retreat and recede into the background and let technology achieve consciousness and continue on without us. And the narrative that they are painting, the story that they are writing to try and understand what’s going on, because they’d rather have a bad story that deal with the existential quandary of real life. Their story is that information has been evolving towards greater states of complexity since the beginning of time and that human beings are just one stage in information’s inevitable journey towards higher states of complexity than we could even imagine. And to me that really has the medium and the message reversed. I don’t think information even exists without a human mind to understand it, to process it, to give it meaning. Without us it’s not information any more, it’s just is, it’s just there. So I’m trying to debunk The Singularity, and to debunk the apocalypse because it has become much easier to imagine a zombie apocalypse than it is to imagine next year. That’s troubling to me, and it’s really because we haven’t yet embraced the present. We’re finding difficult to do it without losing our sense of place, without losing our sense of meaning. And there’s other ways to find meaning, to find your place. Just begin doing pattern recognition to begin understanding the never-ending game of life, or life as an infinite game, rather than as a game that you have to win, declare victory, then see who is saved and who is damned, that you can go on, rather than worry all the time about where is this going. And that’s the real challenge of Present Shock.
What are your thoughts on the future of work? Throughout Present Shock you wrestle with the challenges of our global economy. What knowledge, skill, and abilities do you think people need to be cultivated to be successful?
I mean on the one hand if we do this right, people are going to have to work a whole lot less than they did before. I’m really of the belief that we’ve gotten really good at providing goods and services for pretty much everybody who wants them. The real jobs problem that we are having today is not that we need more people to make more stuff, it’s that we need people to have jobs so that we can justify giving the stuff that we already have in abundance. There’s more than enough houses, there’s more than enough food. We are destroying houses in California as I speak. We are burning food every week to keep market prices high. So it’s not a matter of that, it’s a matter now I think of people looking at how they can contribute to really making the world a better place towards, how do I help? Look at the areas where there is real crisis, whether it’s sustainable energy, global warming, the alarming rate of kids being born with Autism and Spectrum Disorders who are going to need care takers of one sort or another. There’s so many real challenges coming up other than, how am I going to increase housing starts, or create more mortgages, or do all of these kinds of fake things. Because the fake things are going to become less and less relevant, more and more of those people are going to get laid off as the corporations that are really running on fumes lose the ability to do so. And our ability to participate not just in that big economy, but in the local economy of real goods and services, the value that you are actually able to create for other people where you live, or through the Net is going to become a much more, I hate to use a word like this but a much more marketable skill than the kinds of things that you think of currently as careers.
A couple weeks ago, Carlos Scolari interviewed me for a project on pedagogical innovation and disruptive practices in higher education at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona). The aim of the project is to produce a document on the “university of the future,” including diagnosis, trends, and proposals for moving forward.
With his permission, I am sharing my responses to his questions:
CS: How do you see the situation of the universities from a pedagogical point view? I’m thinking in the situation of teaching-learning processes inside these big institutions.
JM: From a pedagogical viewpoint, universities have invested too much in a monocultural approach to education. Most universities are using the same methods to teach all the same stuff. This is very dangerous as the world is changing so quickly that entire fields and bodies of knowledge risk being outdated/outmoded very quickly.
I believe that we need to start to expand the ecology of options that we have in higher education, including pedagogical approaches. Otherwise, we run the risk of failing universally.
CS: Why do you think it’s so difficult to change the teaching-learning practices in the universities?
JM: I think change is difficult within universities because we rely heavily on academic “traditions” that are built on faulty assumptions of teaching and learning. Some of most troubling assumptions (which are not based on science) include:
Motivation: We assume students must be externally motivated to learn, otherwise they would not learn anything. This is akin to assuming the natural state of humans is laziness and non-curious.
Age segregation: We assume people learn best when segregated by age or ability. We tend to compartmentalize education into certain discrete levels (i.e., primary, secondary, and tertiary education), and further segregate students by age. There is very little reason to support this practice, and evidence suggests that cross age/ability integration enhances students’ learning.
Power structures: We assume that the only “qualified” knowledge generators are the teachers at the head of the classroom, who download knowledge into students’ heads. In today’s world where the magnitude of change is accelerating at an exponential pace, information and knowledge is always in flux. Rather than relying on static “experts,” we need to start recognizing and attending to new power structures where we all serve as co-learners and co-teachers.
The good news is that “traditions” are things that we invent all the time. I am optimistic that we can create new traditions that are relevant to modern society.
CS: How can we improve the teaching-learning processes in the universities?
JM: I think we should look at new uses for software and social technologies to enable all participants at universities to become life-long co-teachers as well as co-learners. This means that students (and teachers) need to stop behaving as consumers of education, but become creators, producers, and prosumers. At the same time, learning needs to become more immersive and personally-meaningful (subjective experiences) to each learner. This means that we are likely to not have one master narrative for learning at universities, but we may have many different ones, enabling students and faculty to express themselves as postdisciplinary knowledge experts (possessing unique knowledge at the individual level).
CS: Could you please indicate three (3) innovative/disruptive teaching-learning experiences? They could be single practices (i.e. flip teaching) or institutional ones (i.e. Coursera).
Democratic education: Educational institutions tend to run as dictatorships, and are structured to preserve themselves. By horizontalizing our relationships, and making sure to give each stakeholder an equal voice, we could see significant, positive disruption as students and faculty become co-responsible for attending to all aspects of the educational experience.
Quest-based learning: Thieu Besselink wrote an excellent chapter on this in Knowmad Society: http://www.knowmadsociety.com
Co-teaching: This is best expressed by what E-180 and the Shibuya University Network already engage in.
CS: How do you imagine the university of the future? Please indicate three (3) characteristics.
JM: This question is perhaps faulty in that it assumes that we will have universities in the future. Maybe you should start with the question: Does the future need universities?
Let’s assume that the future does need universities. In that case, I envision near-future institutions will operate in an environment where…
Any form of information delivery that can be commodified, will be. We see this today with the emergence of MOOCs, Udemy, Coursera, etc. Any non-unique content delivery (especially through download-style pedagogies) will be provided through these platforms, and through a small group of providers. This is particularly threatening to junior colleges, general education courses at mainstream universities, and perhaps also to secondary education.
The gap between top tier schools and everybody else will widen. The top schools may not have superior educational offerings, but they have powerful brands. Why pay to take a course at the University of Minnesota when you can participate in a free, online experience that is affiliated with a top school, such as Stanford or MIT? My take is that the top-tier schools with powerful brand identities will “own” higher education; and, in many respects, other universities will become subscribers to their products and services.
Smaller, “boutique” programs outside the formal, accredited system will boom in presence and market share. Small, but highly specialized, programs such as KaosPilots, Knowmads, YIP, Hyper Island, and the Shibuya University Network operate outside of formal education, and have each developed their own approaches to teaching and learning. In an era where mainstream society are beginning to question the value of a university degree, these programs offer alternatives, and employers will become much, much more receptive to the “graduates” of these alternative education/credentialing programs.
I think that, apart from the very few elite institutions, universities are marching themselves toward obsolescence, and they may be the last to figure it out. Remember, as Anya Kamentz pointed out in her interview at Education Futures, the Roman Senate continued to meet for several centuries after the collapse of the empire.
At the 2012 Pioneers Festival in Vienna, Austria, I met up with Philippe Greier. He is one of the minds behind Playmakers Industries, a real-life game development company with a presence in both Brazil and Europe, and is one of the principals behind Present-e. He designs scenarios and games to help individuals tap potentials that they otherwise thought that they would not have. As part of his organizations’ gaming elements, they tap into players’ social capital. When people feel that they are playing in a game, they are willing to experiment, make mistakes, and learn in new ways.
Anya’s most recent projects — two free ebooks Learning, freedom and the Web (Mozilla Foundation) and The Edupunks’ Guide (Gates Foundations) build on her previous work investigating issues of self-directed learning, peer-networks, and access.
Our discussion focused on the future, purposes, and meaning of formal education, as well as alternative accreditation models, Knowmad Society, and academic and institutional change.
Here is a summary of our conversation:
On the purpose of college:
“As I get deeper into the topic of higher education it strikes me all the time that there really is a blind man and the elephant quality to it. That people appear to be discussing the same thing and yet you find that their internal models of what higher education means are very, very different.”
On the mission of educational institutions in our modern economy defined by being post-industrial, highly globalized, and subject to accelerating change:
“We are living in a time of bottomless scrutiny of all of our institutions and education foremost among them and that’s because they are subject to so many structural pressures and the weakest points in their creation are really exposed by the winds of the new society and the world that we are living in…”
On the value of a college degree:
“…at its best, a college degree is a unique kind of currency that was created by human societies to show that someone has been through a process of personal development, of cultural development, that they are a ‘citizen’ in the truest sense of the word. They are able to participate in society intelligently. Ideally they are able to contribute to society…”
On compulsory high school in America:
“The whole idea of compulsory education is a little bit of a strange one in the United States. We’ve never had more, than what we have today which is a three-fourths high school graduation rate. Even though we compel people to attend, we are not that great at getting them to graduate. And for those that do graduate, in many districts, over half need some type of remedial courses to repeat when they get to college, if they get to college.”
On our projection of the demise of formal schooling by 2037:
“I’m not sure that I share the bluntness of a projection like that. It’s very easy to envision a world in which formal education is far demoted down the list in terms of choices that individuals have…”
On how alternative accreditation can benefit Knowmads:
“We are seeing all kinds of exciting developments in alternative accreditation. There are two major trends and they sort of work in complimentary directions. The first one is, this more atomized, very specific skills based orientated kind of accreditation which is best encapsulated by the badge. … On the opposite end of the spectrum, I think in a very intriguing way, you have sort of the person, the whole life, life as certification. The idea of a portfolio based assessment, things that allow you to document your learning that has taken place in various stages and aspects on your life, create a narrative around that learning, reflect on that learning, and develop metacognitive skills and document the learning you’ve done as well.”
On sociotechnical practices that are shaping the future of learning:
“The availability of social networks and peer based social networking is really enabling people to make visible the peer roles in learning that have sort been faded into the background by the last 150 years of formal education which sort of, and really in some sense the last 1000 years which considered of a person at the front of the room talking and the rest of the people are sitting down. And the assumption is that the people who are sitting down are very passive listeners and are not actively involved which each other; and, in fact, we have the phrase “classmates” but necessarily give you the idea that you have something valuable to learn from the person sitting next to you or behind you as much as you do from the person at the front of the room.”
On creating a more accessible and equitable education system:
“I think what is clearly being revealed at the moment is that the structures that we are building don’t necessarily allow for increased social equity or access over an above what we have in the brick and mortar system because merely making things available for free doesn’t necessarily lower the barriers to access and in fact we are actually we are in danger of recreating many of the same privileges that exists in the Ivory Tower world online simplify because people online tend to work through more informal networks that goes back to sort of an idea of an old boys network, it can be more meritocratic in some ways, it can be more open in some ways, but in the bottom line you need to have more onramps, ways to make these structures visible to people who wouldn’t necessarily know how to use them.”
On rising costs in higher education:
“Basic disruption theory tells us disruptive choices rarely come from the inside institutions, they have too much to lose. It’s the new institutions that are finding the ability offer things at radically lower costs. and sort of reframe and question what we mean by higher education.”
On evolution and revolution in education:
“I think that education is a peculiarly resistant to change of any institution because the whole purpose of formalized education is to preserve the past. … I guess I would vote on the side of very radical change happening but it may not take the take the form we expect.”
“Our jobs are shifting from doing what we’ve always done very well, to always being on the lookout for new opportunities to advance teaching, learning, service, and research” (p. 2).
Mathews’ white paper “Think Like a Startup” makes a compelling case that within 20 years many of the modern academic libraries’ services will be housed and run by other units across campus. Therefore, Mathews argues academic libraries need to forge new partnerships across campus, discover new ways to create value for their users, and experiment with radical new approaches to solving their most pressing needs.
Click the table above for a larger version.
Mathews, B. (2012). Think Like A Startup: a white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism.
“Sunset 14” From the album “As Days Get Shorter” by Sharp CC BY-NC 2.5
Last week, I spoke with Vernor Vinge [Wikipedia | website], a retired San Diego State University professor of mathematics. He is better known as a five-time Hugo Award-winning science fiction author. His works include True Names, Fast Times at Fairmont High, and Rainbows End. Most importantly, his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity,” argues that accelerating technological change will bring about the end of the human era as we know it, and that the world will become so complex and foreign to human observers, it will be impossible to predict what will happen next.
Ray Kurzweil and others have since contributed to the popularization of the Singularity, but the conversation has been centered on technological determinism. In a world that is consumed by accelerating change, what are the implications for systems that are at risk of being outpaced — namely, human systems? And, what are the implications for how we will learn and work in the near future?
I got this sort of vision where the human workplace is scattered in both space and time, and for a single career, it’s not a merely a matter of changing your career every couple years, it’s a matter of actually changing your point of attention on smaller time scales.
What can science fiction tell us about our future?
According to Vinge, a lot. He helped introduce the cyberpunk genre in the early with his 1981 Novel, true Names. He says, “the technological situation we have now is very similar to what was described in True Names, which actually was implicitly targeted in the year 2014,” but much of that can be attributed to pure luck.
The future authors of the genre have envisioned, he argues, has emerged today as a mix of expected and unexpected dystopian and hopeful elements. Society of today, he believes, has not changed much since the early 1980s. Corporate dominance in government, for example, is still at the same level as it was before, and our views on technology shifted since 1984:
Before the year 1984, people generally looked at computers the way George Orwell did in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. After 1984, people had these great visions of computers freeing the people from tyrannies, and that is still a real possibility… and it is a possibility that has come true in large parts of the world. But, I would say the jury is still out as to what the ultimate effectiveness of computers and communication automation favors tyranny or favors liberty. I’m putting my bets on liberty, but I would say it’s not an obvious win in either direction.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the Singularity was introduced at the NASA VISION-21 Symposium. What’s changed?
I’m still where I was in my 1993 essay that I gave at a NASA meeting, and that is that I define the Technological Singularity as being our developing, through technology, superhuman intelligence — or becoming, ourselves, superhuman intelligent through technology. And, I think calling that the Singularity is actually a very good term in the sense of vast and unknowable change. A qualitatively different sort of change than technological progress in the past.
He still believes four pathways could lead to the development of the Singularity by 2030:
The development of computers that are “awake” and superhumanly intelligent.
Large computer networks (and their associated users) may “wake up” as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
Biological science may find ways to improve upon the natural human intellect.
When asked which one is more likely, he hinted that he sees a digital Gaia of networks plus people emerging:
The networked sum of all the embedded microprocessors in all our devices becomes a kind of digital Gaia. That qualifies, as an ensemble, as a superhuman entity. That is probably the weirdest of all possibilities because, if anything, it looks like animism. And, sometimes I point to it when I want to make the issue that this can be very strange. I think that actually the networking of embedded microprocessors is going like gangbusters. The network that is the Internet plus humanity, that is also going with extraordinarily surprises, if you just look at the successes in the various schemes that go by names like crowdsourcing. To me, those have been astounding, and should give people real pause with how to use the intellectual resources actually that we have out there. So far, we do not have a single computer that is really of human-level intelligence, and I think that is going to happen. But, it is a kind of an amazing thing that we have an installed base of seven billion of these devices out there.
What does this mean for schools?
Vinge believes talking about post-Singularity situations in education are impractical. In theory, is impossible for us to predict or comprehend what will happen, so we should not focus our attention on worrying about post-Singularity futures. Rather, we should focus on the ramp-up toward the Singularity, our unique talents, and how we can network together to utilize them in imaginative ways:
Talking about the run-up to the Singularity makes sense for several different reasons. One is, we have to get through it. The other is that it is our opportunity, as the chief players… it’s our opportunity to make things turn out safely and happily. In the meantime, at just the level of just getting one’s job done, I think there are real changes that are going to be happening in education and more broadly in training issues. I think one thing that is going to become more-and-more evident is the fact that we have seven billion people out there who are variously good … very good … at different things. And, there are ways of enhancing and amplifying that by collaboration. And, when I say “collaboration” […] it is a very good thing. But, if you look at some of the group mind projects and crowdsourcing projects, there is very great imagination that can be exercised in making collaboration effective. One thing is to interface people who have very different skills — that can actually be helped a lot by the network.
When dealing with unknown futures, it remains unknown how to prepare people best for these futures. He states that the best pathway involves teaching children “to learn how to learn” (a key theme in Fast Times at Fairmont High), and that we need to encourage the development of positive futures by attending to diversity in our learning systems. We need to not facilitate the formation of diverse students, but we also need to abandon a monoculture approach to education and attend to a diverse ecology of options in teaching and evaluation.
Most importantly, to meet the individual needs of students, he believes, we need to focus on “shifting the emphasis from intense attention to process and having the process of the teaching right … shifting that attention to having independent rating agencies that are not so much interested in process as they are in giving reliable rating information to people who have to judge the results of the money that is being spent on the education.”
I met up with Basti Hirsch at the NEXT Berlin 2012 conference last week. He is a leader at the Education Innovation Lab at the HUMBOLDT-VIADRINA School of Governance in Berlin. His work focuses on reinventing learning in the digital age. We chatted about what it would take to drive innovation in education, and some of what he believes are the most exciting examples we can learn from.
Basti’s approach to innovation involves bringing stakeholders to the table, integrating technology that didn’t exist before, and focusing on making it happen. He cautions that while technologies can be enablers, but we need to be purposive on how we use them. Moreover, Basti refers to Charles Leadbeater’s matrix of disruptive innovation (see Leadbeater’s TED talk), which illustrates new modes for user-created innovations by using tools smartly.
Charles Leadbeater’s matrix of disruptive innovation
Who’s leading the way? He is inspired by the work of i.c.stars in Chicago, which uses project-based learning approaches to develop young leaders in communities that are otherwise underserved by mainstream education. He also suggests looking at the Stanford d.school. They’re reinventing classrooms, he observed, and helping educators to think beyond static conceptualizations of “education.”