Sunday, November 6, 2016

There is no university of the future

Every time a new educational model is launched or an existing institution builds an innovative new facility we see headlines about whether this is the school/university of the future. This is another aspect of the tiresome either/or rhetoric that surrounds popular discussions of digitalisation; the new model will replace existing models. If we could just replace the definite article with the indefinite article and state simply that this is a school/university of the future the discussion might be more realistic. There is no one model for the future, there will be a wide range of different interpretations from traditional to innovative.

A recent example of this is an article from BBC newsUniversity opens without any teachers, about a university called 42 (devotees of A hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy will immediately understand) that has no teachers and where students collaborate to solve a wide range of problems and where achievement is measured through peer review and the practical implementation of the problems they solve. There are no tuition fees and accommodation is provided free thanks to the considerable backing of its billionaire owner. The venture started in France and has now opened a branch in the USA with the objective of training up to a thousand students in coding and software development. The students are highly motivated self-directed learners, able to search effectively for the information they need and exploit their networks to develop their skills.

The lack of teachers is indeed a radical solution and the headlines that this initiative has prompted fuels many people's insecurity about technology as a threat to jobs and traditional institutions. The point is that this is simply one of many models being tested today as we experiment with new ways of offering education. Indeed this one is a highly specialised model that the founders admit is only suitable for a certain target group.

Britanny Bir admits 42's methods do not suit all students. During the month-long selection period, some applicants fell out because of the stresses of working closely together. It is easy to imagine reacting badly to a poor mark if it was given by the student in the desk next to you.

"It suits individuals who are very disciplined and self-motivated, and who are not scared by having the freedom to work at their own pace," she says.

42 isn't the university of the future but it does demonstrate a trend that is already evident in universities; promoting active learning through real project work, collaboration and peer assessment. This will suit many learners who feel stifled by traditional teaching methods and want to focus on teamwork, problem-solving and practical application of skills from the very start. Another point is that 42 isn't actually a university in the formal sense of the term. They aren't providing credentials that can be compared to university degrees and should not be directly compared. There are many other examples of new educational models using traditional vocabulary like university, college or academy (Peer2peer university, Khan Academy, Udacity's nanodegrees etc) and being dragged into comparisons with the traditional system. Maybe they should use new terminology to show that they are offering new paths to learning and new forms of credentials that are not comparable to degrees.

What we are seeing today is experimentation with new models of education and the establishment of a new ecosystem where traditional degrees will still have great relevance but new alternatives will be available. If the new credentials are verifiable and trustworthy and employers accept them then they will become hard currency. They aren't the same as a university degree but they widen the credential spectrum.

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