Recent Blog Posts
At the Institute for the Future’s ten-year forecast retreat last month, I overheard April Rinne from Collaborative Lab use the phrase “shareable cities” during a break. My ears perked up because Shareable Cities is one of the five major disruptions that KnowledgeWorks’ Recombinant Education highlights as reshaping learning over the next decade. It turns out that Collaborative Lab provides advisory services around collaborative consumption, or the emerging sharing economy.
April clued me in on Jerry Michalski’s inspiring TEDxCopenhagen talk on the future of education, “What if we trusted you?” (Jerry co-facilitated the IFTF retreat and runs REX, which brings together corporate leaders to navigate the switch to a relationship economy.) The question of trust is a crucial one for those of us who want to transform learning because it gets at the heart of one of the fundamental assumptions upon which our current K-12 education system is built.
As with so many aspects of our culture, K-12 education is designed, as Jerry points out, around scarcity instead of abundance. Instead of organizing education around learning, we typically organize it around time. Jerry argues that this fundamental structure creates a scarcity of both time and meaning that gets in the way of young people discovering their life passions and teaches them to be obedient, compliant, and dependent. We perpetuate the resulting system because we fear chaos and want scale. Then, we attempt to fix it through overregulation, oversurveillance, and overmedication and end up doing things like teaching to the test instead of placing our first emphasis on learning.
For me, the challenge of acting from a standpoint of abundance instead of scarcity has been one of those recurring life lessons that seem to plague at least some of us. So I’m especially intrigued by what it would mean to design an abundant, trust-based learning ecosystem in which, as Jerry describes it, we could learn:
• At any time
• From anyone
• With anyone
• Connected to real life
• About any object or question.
As our forecast on the future of learning also points out, we can already do all of those things and can expect to be doing more of them in ten years. Some people, such as the unschoolers whom Jerry describes, are already learning only in this way. But why is it necessary to opt out of school in order to opt into such rich learning?
What could it mean for more nodes in the learning ecosystem – especially today’s K-12 schools – to revisit the fundamental assumption of scarcity and design for abundance? In effect, to design for learning to flow naturally across a vibrant learning ecosystem in concert with learners’ curiosities and passions?
From 2002 through 2005, I worked at Britain’s Open University, which has been delivering distance education via a model of supported open learning since the UK government chartered it to do so in 1969. As a pioneer and leader in open and distance education, the Open University has long implemented a variety of learning agent roles designed for its model rather than for a traditional university structure. It’s so established in this space that my roles there involved transitioning its student feedback and tutor support systems from their original paper-based formats to the web.
Like other universities, the Open University has departments and about 1,200 full-time academics who work at its headquarters in Milton Keynes, England, and have research responsibilities. But it starts to diverge from there. Those academics, along with course managers, instructional designers, media specialists, academics from other universities, and external assessors who ensure that courses reflect the same standards as at other universities, form course teams to design and produce curriculum, course materials, assignments, and assessments.
Other employees with academic training work as staff tutors in thirteen national and regional centers across the UK and Ireland. Those staff tutors manage a network of over 7,500 part-time associate lecturers, practice tutors, and specialist tutors who contract with the Open University to provide local support for its 250,000 students. In addition, regionally based student services teams provide study and career planning support and services for students with disabilities.
While there are the three distinct teaching roles listed above, I’ll focus here on the associate lecturer role, which is the most prevalent. If you’ve seen Educating Rita, you’ll have a sense of what it looks like.
For most modules, students receive support from a locally-based associate lecturer who grades their formative assessments and stays in regular communication with students in his or her tutor group. Students also have channels for communicating with the other students in their tutor group, as well as with all students studying the same module. In many cases, associate lecturers provide place-based or online tutorials or day schools, which serve as instructional touch points that reinforce students’ independent engagement with the course materials. A few science, language, and management modules still include residential schools where students gather to apply their learning. The university contracts separately for the grading of summative assessments so as to help ensure objectivity and limit the risk of variation in grading.
So, while one individual can have several contracts, The Open University has split the tasks involved in designing, supporting, and assessing learning into multiple roles, some full-time and many part-time. With the bulk of the academic workforce employed part-time, it can scale employment with enrollment. And it can bring in expertise from across the UK higher education system, as well as from other sectors.
It takes a lot of coordination to make this large-scale distributed system work effectively. In addition to the management activities that take place through the regional centers, a huge student services department at the Milton Keynes headquarters manages tutor hiring and support systems, student support systems, and assessments. The university’s non-academic staff totals about 4,000 people.
Although KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0 highlights our increasing independence from institutions, the future learning ecosystem will include schools and universities, in some number and in some form. The Open University blazed a trail by showing that it’s possible to provide high-quality learning at a distance and at scale, creating a distributed and flexible employment network as well as a distributed and flexible physical infrastructure that add up to the kind of customizable value web that learners will increasingly expect and demand.
Northern Arizona University (NAU) will soon be entering the field of higher education institutions providing competency-based degrees via its Personalized Learning program. Students will be able to pursue degrees in small business administration, computer information technology, and liberal arts by starting with whichever modules that they select, demonstrating mastery via pre- and post-testing and documentation of experience, and choosing their preferred learning modalities as they study. They will pay a flat fee of $2,500 every six months.
In designing the program, as senior vice president for NAU’s Extended Campuses Fred Hurst describes it, NAU “’threw out all our current approaches to pedagogy, student support and business processes and reinvented them using the latest techniques and technologies.’” That process involved “’taking existing courses and deconstructing them into outcomes and competencies’” and then rebuilding courses around outcomes.
It also involved partnering with Pearson to use its LearningStudio adaptive learning platform, for which the university will pay $875 per student every six months. The idea is for that platform to help guide students through their studies – in effect serving as a virtual learning agent – thereby targeting faculty time where students really need it. That efficient allocation of faculty time is one of the ways the program expects to control costs.
As detailed in an article in Inside Higher Ed, the expectation is that “’on average, a faculty members will be spending a half-hour per week with a student.’” But faculty will be available on demand “to not only help students understand material within the discipline they’re studying, but also help them deal with work-life balance, study skills, whatever is standing in the way of that student being successful.’”
Who are these faculty? The university will be hiring them “as needed, mostly on an adjunct or part-time basis…. These new faculty will collaborate with current Northern Arizona professors and instructional designers employed by Pearson to design the courses, which will go through the university’s normal approval process.”
As detailed by EDUCAUSE, NAU’s Personalized Learning program will entail four faculty roles:
- Mentor faculty will “ensure student success by working directly with students on a one-to-one basis; will have content and/ or advising experience”
- Discipline mentors will be “subject matter experts who tutor students in specific subjects”
- Lead faculty will “publish and curate course content and lead assess¬ment efforts”
- Evaluators will “provide feedback on student work and help support assessment efforts.”
This separation of course creation from subject-specific support from general support from assessment is in keeping with the ways in which other universities have re-created faculty, or learning agent, roles when designing new models of learning, whether competency-based or not.
Has it gone as expected? NAU originally expected to launch the program in January but is now aiming for June. Fred Hurst writes, “A number of factors have slowed us down including campus discussion, technology glitches and regulatory requirements.” Among those technology glitches? How to fit student-driven competency based learning that can start on any day of the year into the university’s existing student information system.
NAU’s experience highlights the complexity of designing for a new model of learning, all the way from the courses themselves to learning agent roles to basic infrastructure. Is it worth navigating such complexity? KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0 suggests that it is. As today’s learning providers reevaluate their value propositions in the face of a wide array of digital and social innovations, they will need to differentiate their offerings to attract students. At KnowledgeWorks, we think that competency education is one pathway for shifting today’s institutions toward the kind of learner-centered provision that can help open the way toward a vibrant learning ecosystem.
Ranked 28th on Fast Company’s 2013 list of most innovative companies worldwide “for showing public schools another way to do business,” the non-profit Western Governors University now has 40,000 students whose average age is 37, with financially independent branches in Indiana, Texas, and Washington. Students pay a flat fee of $2,500 a semester and typically graduate in only 35 months, with higher retention rates than traditional four-year institutions.
As a pioneer in online, competency-based education offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, business, information technology, and health care, WGU has had fifteen years to figure out how best to deliver high-quality distance education to working adults who need to augment their employment prospects. Because it started from scratch, it has had free reign to unbundle traditional teaching and learning relationships and resource flows as described in KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0.
Since conversations about an increasingly personalized and customized learning ecosystem frequently raise worries about innovations being driven only or primarily by profit motives, it is worth noting that the impetus to create WGU came from the public sphere, motivated by a common good: expanding access to higher education.
So how has WGU recombined teaching and learning in pursuit of this mission? In defining the competencies around which the curriculum is based, its program faculty of academic experts works with industry experts to ensure that its degrees open doors to employment. This collaboration takes place through program councils. Members of the program faculty also serve as:
- Program managers “responsible for the overall quality and relevance of their college’s degree programs”
- Curriculum developers who develop and continuously improve learning resources and assessments and “measure product excellence through feedback, employer acceptance, and graduate success.”
New faculty roles aside, this degree of market awareness stands out in a sector that has traditionally resisted thinking of its degrees as products and its students as customers who purchase them.
Since 2007, WGU has used student and course mentors to support students in navigating the program and engaging with the curriculum designed by the program faculty. Every student has a student mentor who stays with the individual throughout his or her learning journey, providing coaching, direction, and practical advice via weekly academic progress conversations. Course mentors provide individual and group instructional support for specific sections of the WGU curriculum.
Lastly, WGU separates assessment from coaching and instruction by employing evaluators, whom it describes as “subject matter experts tasked with reviewing assessment submissions in a fair and unbiased manner to determine if competency has been demonstrated.”
All told, these roles add up to over 1,100 full-time and 200 part-time faculty members, many of whom work from home from locations all around the U.S.
It really is possible to create new ways of managing and delivering teaching and learning. And there really are individuals willing to step out of traditional academic roles and into new jobs that work for new solutions.
While my table was working on the future of K-12 education during the University of Houston’s Certificate in Strategic Foresight program, another table was working on the future of higher education. They forecast that higher education will move toward an à la carte system where students partake of what they need to gain employment and pursue other aims.
In commenting on that scenario in the context of formulating a strategic plan, one of the instructors, Peter Bishop, commented that education has a monopoly not on learning but on credentialing. That observation rang true and put a fine point on the crisis that higher education might be facing – and which K-12 education could face too.
Already, as I’ve been highlighting in other posts, competency based models are providing new ways for learners to pursue higher education on their own terms and at their own pace. Corporate universities are signaling a trend toward corporations’ addressing the apparent skills gap by offering education specific to their contexts. Apprenticeships such as those offered by Thought Bot to address a shortage in product designers and software developers are helping learners develop practical skills that they’re not gaining in other educational settings.
Corporate grooming is also making its way to the high school level. New York’s Pathways in Technology (P-Tech) Early College High School is positioning students to take jobs with IBM if they choose to do so upon graduating with associates’ degrees.
All of these approaches offer new ways of earning skills and credit, some of which translates into credit within traditional higher education institutions. And, as our Forecast 3.0 previews, do-it-yourself credentialing is on the rise via platforms such as Degreed and Pathbrite.
Education still has the credentialing monopoly. But how long will that be the case? Will alternative or do it yourself credentials become more important than college degrees, at least in some settings?
I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in the University of Houston’s Certificate in Strategic Foresight program this week. As part of learning more about forecasting, we worked as teams to develop baseline and alternate scenarios of the future based on compelling trends and key questions about what some of them could mean. Luckily for me, my table chose to forecast the future of K-12 education in the US.
Our quickly-developed baseline scenario, “This Ain’t Yo Daddy’s School District,” was pretty consistent with the fully articulated forecast of the future of learning in KnowledgeWorks’ Recombinant Education. As shown below, we forecast that school would take many forms and that learning would flow across multi-layered, interconnected, and distributed networks.
Our alternate scenario, “No Child Left,” forecast that the proliferation of learning options, combined with today’s trend toward opting out of public education for options such as homeschooling or digital learning, could result in a mass exodus from the system. (Keep breathing. Scenarios often push plausible developments to their extremes to help people stretch their thinking about what could happen and consider how they would respond if it did.)
Then we explored possible implications of that scenario for a progressive state education agency. One of those implications could be a vast reduction in state and federal funding for education. Looking also at the trend toward new sources of investment in education innovation, we projected that an agency could respond by cultivating new sources of funding. In effect, its role could shift from managing compliance to serving as a broker between learning providers and funders. We created an elevator speech describing a possible response to the challenge of drastically reduced government funding, as shown below.
I share the highlights of this exercise as a way of illustrating how delving into different nuances of the future learning landscape can help us find ways in to grappling with key issues and illuminating strategies that we might want to explore, regardless of whether a particular scenario comes to pass.
So, in this example, should state education agencies or other key education stakeholders get more proactive about seeking alternative sources of funding? What would be the consequences of taking that course – or not? Are there other ways in which we might consider preparing for a large-scale exodus from public education, or things we might do to prevent that from happening?
The Brookings Institution’s new paper, “Should Everyone Go to College?” analyzes the return on investment of higher education, concluding that “while on average the return to college is highly positive, there is a considerable spread in the value of going to college. A bachelor’s degree is not a smart investment for every student in every circumstance.”
Having passionately pursued a major in English with minors in art history and medieval studies with scant regard to what that meant for my future employment, I apparently set myself up to land in the bottom third of the paper’s “Work-Life Earnings of Bachelor’s Degree Holders by College Major” chart. I still believe that many transferrable skills, such as critical thinking, analysis of information, and persuasive writing, can come out of following one’s interests, apart from direct ties to employment.
Indeed, passion-based learning is one of the avenues through which we might achieve the radical personalization of learning that KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0 implies. And since we don’t know what jobs will look like down the road, I prefer to emphasize such transferable skills over direct job preparation.
Nonetheless, college costs significantly more than it did when I enrolled twenty-five years ago, and the digital revolution has since come into maturity. As traditional higher education cracks under the weight of escalating costs and alternative pathways, these kinds of analyses serve as important signals. With more and more learners and their families asking questions such as, “Is a four-year college worth the investment of time and money?” more individuals will start looking for highly customized solutions that meet their needs in becoming career ready.
At the same time, more and more employers are noting a skills gap among potential employees. They too will be asking questions about the value of traditional degrees, where they come from, and whether other kinds of career preparation programs might better meet their needs.
We have a lot of big questions and complicated issues to sort out in rethinking how higher education will work and how it relate to what we currently call K-12 education. In the meantime, analyses such as that conducted by the Brookings Institution (whose infographic summarizing the analysis may be found here) provide useful insight into how things are working (or not) today.
a guest post by Joseph Scherer, Executive Director, Superintendents’ National Dialogue
Recently a group of school executives from the Superintendents’ National Dialogue (SND) scheduled a meeting in Cincinnati to learn more about the latest forecast on the future of learning developed by KnowledgeWorks. Katherine Prince, Senior Director of Strategic Foresight introduced the work with a quote from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
Unlike Twain’s Hank Morgan, none of us experienced a knock on the head that produced fun fanciful musings with cloudy imagery open to multiple interpretation but lacking in practicality. Instead Katherine challenged us to focus on five well-grounded disruptions to American culture that will change how we learn. Throughout the dialogue, I kept thinking about Twain’s quote and realized that this experience was different in that we were not, as we often do, trying to shoot holes in someone’s ill-crafted view of the future. Rather Katherine expected us to calibrate our thinking as it wrapped around solid but unfamiliar trends.
This distinctive experience gave me a new appreciation for Twain’s observation, and I left with the following discernments:
- We too often hold fast to those things that we believe are true, and we think our choices are limited to only what we can see. The SND network is made up of individuals willing to call long-held beliefs into question and expand choices.
- Massive amounts of information fill our environment, but we only have the conscious capacity to be aware of a small amount because we filter out what is important to us at the moment. The struggle is how to transcend the moment without disengaging from reality.
- I kept asking myself, “Can I really know what lies before me if I am so accustomed to seeing only what I already believe?” One session with Katherine made me realize that I am too myopic and that widening my belief structure is an ongoing process. For me, this means more sessions so that my belief structure captures and holds the understanding that combining resources will shape shareable cities and leverage customizable value webs. This means more than a one-time feel good session; it means a continual commitment to grow – it means work.
- Data is providing a greater understanding of cognition and motivation along with more robust feedback systems, and all of this leads toward a more personalized learning ecosystem. This is consistent with the transformation called for in the vision statements of a number of leading states.
- The learning ecosystem will experience greater diversification of structure and funding. Once again, the work of leading state associations accepts the change in both structure and funding as a given because the successes of the past are no longer enough.
- How well you respond to challenges is affected directly by your focus, and focus is what you are aware of and what you choose to do or not do. Those in the SND network that have a written vision statement are better able to stay on task and work systematically toward achieving their goals. In addition, they can imagine how the disruptions outlined by KnowledgeWorks are more than possible; they are already here.
The SND attendees were not asked to dream only to awaken to questionable images, but rather were asked to focus on thoughtful realities resulting from changing societal parameters. Education cannot be thought of as immune to change, and educators can no longer simply object to change. Instead, they must lead with a vision for the future.
It is clear from the disruptions identified by KnowledgeWorks that community resources will combine in new ways. Educators will no longer have to shoulder the entire burden for learning, but they will have to formulate the vision that will draw communities together. KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0 provides an essential view of critical trends giving all readers/participants knowledge of the challenges, a common framework and language, and a concise understanding of expected outcomes.
I believe that all of us who engaged in the dialogue with Katherine and other KnowledgeWorks staff left emboldened to lead in the creation of a vision for the future of public education. That vision will focus our efforts on an achievable image. Selecting the right partners is a critical step in the entire process. KnowledgeWorks has a commitment to excellence and an open and receptive approach to what is possible, and is mission driven to continually push the edge, making it an ideal partner for those educators working on building a vision for the future because they will gain greater focus and be able to trust more strongly what they see.
When I shared KnowledgeWorks’ forecast on the future of learning with ASCD’s board in February, a strand of the conversation began to suggest that there wouldn’t be as much of a place for people to support learning because we will have so many digital tools for mediating, supporting, and delivering learning. Since that time, I’ve continued to reflect on how critical skilled people will be in an expanded learning ecosystem.
Yes, we will – and do already – have tools for helping learners and their families identify the learning experiences that meet their needs, reflect their interests, and support their goals. Aristotle Circle does this kind of digital brokering for learners as young as kindergarten age. The Noodle search engine focuses solely on education because there are already so many learning options that it’s hard for people to find them using a general search engine.
And of course many of those learning options already involve digital delivery, all or in part, opening the way for educators not just to develop new ways of relating to students and supporting learning, but also to define new kinds of jobs that make sense in those environments. The continuing expansion of high-quality open education resources available through platforms such as Khan Academy, TED-Ed, and WikiEducator is opening possibilities for independent learning while challenging traditional uses of classroom time.
Teacher and faculty roles will face continuing challenge and redefinition as freely available resources increase in quality and production value, taking us beyond the rise of rock star teachers that we’ve been seeing via MOOCs such as Coursera and Udacity toward Hollywood-quality learning environments that integrate multiple digital media formats. Such environments are already challenging institutional roles and boundaries and suggesting that content delivery will become an ever-lesser aspect of many educators’ roles.
Lastly, as learning providers get smarter about corralling data about learners’ academic performance, social conditions, and well being into easily understood learning analytics and dashboards, we’ll have more and more tools available to support learners and educators in selecting and fine tuning learning experiences and supports. Adaptive learning platforms such as Knewton and analytical tools such as Desire2Learn Insights are beginning to compile and contextualize digital information to help people direct and understand learning.
As the learning ecosystem becomes ever more complex and varied, individuals are going to need support in designing and making decisions around learning. Some of that support will come from digital tools. And some of it will come from specialized educators, or learning agents, who help guide learners, coach them along their chosen learning pathways, interpret relevant data, and support learning in ways that we can’t imagine today.
Yes, the future learning ecosystem will be digitally mediated, with many of its nodes and supports integrating digital tools in fundamental ways. But they’re our tools, for us to put to use for our purposes. Jobs will change. New roles will emerge. Learners will have more options. But people will remain at the heart of learning. Learners should be at the center. With a host of specialized learning agents nearby.
As highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article earlier this year, the University of Wisconsin will, come fall of 2013, be the first public university in the U.S. to offer competency-based degrees and certificates. Targeted toward working adults and degree completion students, the program will enable students to progress by demonstrating mastery, whether they have attained it through traditional college courses, online instruction, work experience, or some other avenue. They will start whenever they want, take assessments when they feel ready, and progress at their own pace.
The first cohort of its Flexible Option program will include a bachelor’s degree for registered nurses, degree completion in diagnostic imaging, a Bachelor’s in Information Science and Technology, and a Certificate in Professional and Technical Communication. University of Wisconsin Colleges will also be offering competency-based general education courses in fields ranging from biology to psychology to exercise science and athletics to women’s studies to English to art to music.
As the Wall Street Journal article put it, the university is “decoupling the learning part of education from student assessment and degree-granting.” As such, it is one of a handful of institutions blazing the trail toward reconsidering the role of institutions in credentialing learning. KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0 highlights de-institutionalization as a key disruption that will reshape learning over the next decade.
With learning experiences diversifying, the need for continuous career readiness growing, and the trend toward organizing without organizations to pursue work and other productive activity, the role of today’s institutions in brokering and credentialing learning promises increasingly to be called into question. Existing institutions will need to define distinct, and often multiple, value propositions to attract students who will expect to be able to learn what they want when they want and who will increasingly turn away from limiting structures.
So what does it take to implement competency education within an existing university? As described on the Flexible Option website, three advisory groups are steering the transition:
• A Faculty/Instructional Academic Staff advisory group is developing principles for quality, competencies, assessments, and levels of mastery, as well as identifying an ongoing oversight role for faculty as UW Flexible Option programs are developed.
• An Administrative Advisory group is working through infrastructure issues and assisting in the development of a business model.
• An Academic and Student Support group is assisting in the development of the operational mechanisms and support needed to allow students to enroll and progress in UW Flexible Option programs.
On the student support side, a team of success coach advisors will help students plan and manage their learning journeys. These success coach advisors seem similar to the learning journey mentors that KnowledgeWorks’ 2020 Forecast imagined helping students create and navigate their learning itineraries.
UW’s Flexible Option program, and the transition to it, highlight just some of the possibilities for redesigning learning experiences and their credentialing to create a vibrant learning ecosystem comprised of many viable options, each of which will suit some students some of the time.
As colleges and universities seek new value propositions to attract students amid an increasing array of choices, the University of Southern New Hampshire’s College for America has launched a competency-based associate’s degree that seeks to make college accessible while also addressing what they describe as a nationwide workforce crisis. Students enroll via their employers at a cost of $2,500 a year and progress at their own pace as they master 120 competencies in these areas:
• Critical and creative thinking
• Quantitative skills
• Digital fluency and information literacy
• Personal effectiveness
• Ethics and social responsibility
• Teamwork and collaboration
• Business essentials
• Science, society, and culture.
This program intrigues me for many reasons, not least of which is its goal of making relevant higher education available to students who might otherwise struggle to earn a degree. I also see it as enacting the kind of radical personalization that KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0 describes as being a key facet of the emerging learning ecosystem. And it addresses the emerging need for continuous career readiness, which will only become more pronounced as more jobs become automated, more work becomes ad hoc, and jobs that we can’t imagine today come into existence.
In addition, I was excited to read about the new roles that College for America has created to support students:
• Learning Coach – Helps each student navigate the program and set their own pace
• Accountability Partner– Similar to a “workout buddy” and chosen by the student, the accountability partner provides the motivation to keep learners on track
• Mentor – From the student’s place of work, the mentor focuses on career development
• Evaluator – The evaluator reviews tasks and gives feedback
• College for America Community – Includes other working learners in the program.
Ever since we published our 2020 Forecast in 2009, KnowledgeWorks has been forecasting the emergence of new learning agent roles that will support rich, relevant, and authentic learning in multiple settings. College for America has established a model that blows open traditional faculty roles to support students in navigating its distinct learning approach.
What other roles might be possible if we redesigned education – at any level – with learners at the center and removed the constraints of seat time, credits or Carnegie units, and age progressions to keep each learner growing and mastering skills at her or his ideal individual pace?