Cutting Out the Middleman: Networks and Education

Topics: Future of Learning

In 2012, the disruption of traditional institutions and sectors such as journalism, retail and healthcare was swirling fast and furious.

As KnowledgeWorks looked at how the digital revolution might similarly impact education in our Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem forecast, we described disintermediation, or the cutting out of the middleman, in a disruption called “De-Institutionalized Production.” This disruption described how “activity of all sorts [would] be increasingly independent of institutions as contributions [became] more ad-hoc, dynamic, and networked.”

In particular, this disruption highlighted how disintermediation would contribute to the changing nature of work as employment structures shifted from “a workforce to a talent cloud,” automation displaced human workers and people lived and worked longer. The forecast also explored how career pathways would become less linear, coming to “resemble personal mosaics of skills and experiences that [would] be documented through a multitude of alternate credentials, certificates, and reputation markers.”

The forces of disintermediation that were reshaping industries and contributing to the changing nature of work also promised to create changes in education. The authors of Recombinant Education saw opportunities and challenges for learning in a world that would become increasingly networked, dynamic and non-linear.

These disruptions were major societal shifts that promised to have broad impact on the future of learning. We forecast that they would cause deep, and sometimes unsettling, change. But we also made the case that education stakeholders could use future uncertainty to spark creativity, not only fear.

Opportunity: differentiation and specialization

The forecast identified an opportunity for the networked forms of organization described by the De-Institutionalized Production disruption to deliver new levels of differentiation and specialization in areas such as the design of educator roles and the provision of resources to schools. The forecast described the opportunity as follows: “Watch for schools to access specialized services and talent from global networks, creating new differentiated roles for ‘in-house’ learning agents and setting higher standards for both learning agents and learning resources.”

We can see this opportunity playing out today, as schools and their learning communities utilize networks to gain access to a wide variety of experts and services, many times in an ad-hoc and dynamic fashion. One example is Remake Learning, a network consisting of in- and out-of-school-time educators, innovators, researchers, learning scientists, researchers, policy makers and others. This network helps connect members who can share resources; partner on projects; and otherwise advance engaging, relevant and equitable learning practices. Such interconnections help members unlock new forms of knowledge and gain new skills. In addition, the ad-hoc partnerships that Remake Learning helps catalyze often lead to new roles in schools and to innovative, high-quality approaches to learning.

#DisruptTexts is another example of the networked differentiation and specialization envisioned in the forecast. #DisruptTexts is both a Twitter hashtag and website that links teachers to one another for the purpose of creating high-quality language arts curriculum that is inclusive, representative and equitable. The grassroots effort leverages a social media network to connect teachers, directly, around innovating and improving upon learning resources.

Challenge: spoiled for choice

The forces of change described in the De-institutionalized Production disruption reshaped many aspects of our lives and continue to do so. Alongside the opportunity described above, the authors highlighted the challenge of identifying the right options in a world of ever-expanding choices. The authors wrote, “In a world with wide-ranging learning options, new and varied credentials, and continuously changing demands, identifying essential knowledge and skills will be increasingly complex.”

People are indeed grappling with this challenge. One way that manifests is through schools’ and districts’ ongoing interest in thinking through what a profile of a graduate might look like as a way of surfacing and prioritizing the skills, knowledge and dispositions that their learning communities see as essential.

In addition, the emergence of new and varied credentials has created a need for transparency and quality assurance. As the credentialing field has expanded and diversified, platforms such as Credential Engine have been collecting and comparing credentials, helping employers and credential seekers make informed decisions about what credentials to seek and what they mean. This activity resembles the responsibilities of the future micro-credential analyst role that KnowledgeWorks forecast in Exploring the Future Education Workforce: New Roles for an Expanding Learning Ecosystem. This paper forecast that micro-credential analysts might perform audits of micro-credential options and digital portfolio platforms in order to provide learners and institutions with comparative quality assurance metrics.

From disintermediation to recombination

The disintermediating forces described by the De-Institutionalized Production disruption will eventually give way to the process of recombination, meaning that activities and sectors which have been broken apart or fragmented will remix into new approaches. New industries with their own unique needs will emerge, lifting up new perspectives on what skills, knowledge and dispositions people will need to thrive in the emerging employment landscape. At the same time, individuals will be tasked with assembling the right combinations of learning experiences and credentials to navigate this emerging reality.

Even as the forces of recombination gain steam, it is likely that schools and their learning communities will continue to form and access networks to meet their distinctive needs, including new skill sets for existing or entirely new roles. As explored in a forthcoming post, “Weaving Webs of Personalization,” this expanded reliance on networking will intensify the need for each school, learning community or credential provider to hone its value proposition as the choices and options available to learners continue to expand.

This post is part of a seven-piece series reflecting on the state of the challenges and opportunities introduced in KnowledgeWorks’ third anchor forecast, Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem, published 10 years ago. Read the rest of the series: