Sunday, December 11, 2011

On Technology in Higher Education

We have no choice but to turn to technology if we have to solve the problems of mass Higher Education. In Higher Education, we have so far taken a model that was designed to serve a few, and tried to expand this to service the needs of an exponentially larger population. By doing so, we have worked ourselves into the twin problems of soaring cost and declining quality, alongside other attendant problems like creeping irrelevance of Higher Education and degree inflation. In this setting, the only way to create and run a High Quality Higher Education offering is to maintain selectivity, but the social value of it is highly questionable: One could argue Cambridge is a great institution because it only admits great students, not because it does a greatly superior job in teaching. 

This presents a number of problems. First, this is neither consistent with social expectations, a selective system is seen as elitist and a target of regular attacks by politicians and policy-makers, nor it is helpful for economic development of any country, as selectivity means a huge waste of human abilities and shortage of skills for industry and other employers. Selectivity also hugely distorts the educational preferences of the populace, attaching more prestige to more selective subjects and institutions, and regularly burning out a significant number of people who fail to make it and wasting a vast amount of talent of others who go through the gates only to realize that they have come to the wrong paradise. The quest for selectivity often undermines the efforts to teach better - the elitism creeps into the tutors and the students - and makes the learning increasingly disconnected from the real world. In a sense, selectivity somewhat distorts the purpose of education - that of opening up human possibilities - and end up creating more old boys' clubs than we need. 

What's worse is that the century-old argument that selectivity indicates a meritocracy, which is somewhat fair by definition, looks increasingly thin. It is easy to buy advantage in terms of better schooling, educational resources available at home and parent's connections. British Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, found himself to be in a bit of a pickle when it came out that he got his first internship in a big investment bank through his father's connection: He indeed defended this as a 'common practice'. There is increasingly debate that America, seen as a land of opportunity and of meritocracy, is growing an educational aristocracy through its prep schools and ivy league institutions, while the aspirationals, the rest of the middle class who are chasing the higher education dream, end up broke after taking huge loans and spending this on useless education handed down by various out of touch state universities or greedy private colleges. 

As the American student debt exceeds its credit card debts, and across the pond, the British government takes the first steps to enforce an American style education system, the only way left for educational policy-makers and leaders is to look seriously at technology adoption to solve the problem. There are hugely successful examples already: The British Open University, founded in early seventies, have been a great example of using the technology available at the time, broadcast media, into education. This has opened up education for many, and the Open University courses have excelled not only for expanding access, but for quality and rigour as well. This has allowed a flexible format for people to construct their own educational experience, picking and choosing courses to construct their awards and combining various methods of learning to achieve the learning objectives. However, Open University remained committed to its core audience, British Working Class, and have only allowed limited adoption of 'High Technology'. Besides, Open University is designed to be the University of Second Chance - an effort to re-skill the British working class women and men for demands of a service economy - whereas the current challenge is to stop young people from dropping out of life altogether because they can't afford or don't find interest in education anymore.

This must call for serious attempts to employ technology to solve the education question, and indeed, private sector is better suited to play a leading role than the public institutions, which are currently caught in the middle of an antiquated model of education delivery and the selectivity conundrum. There is already a lot of technology employed in education, but the model so far has been to employ the information and communication medium to serve the existing paradigm of education: That of teacher as the guru, learner as the receiver and knowledge flowing more or less in one direction. One would argue that things have changed and we have moved on, successively, to the age of teacher as the designer and then on to the learner as the designer, and from education being classroom bound to open education and then, omnipresent education. In the age of mobile searches, Google Goggles (which recognize objects, and though Google did not release the feature, can recognize faces and search information on people's details), Facebook friends and always-on networks, the medium must alter the message: One needs to create a model of education which can follow the learner. We have so far avoided the debate and tried to hide behind academic rigour: But, as Open University has shown, access and academic integrity are not necessarily at odds. What is needed is imagination - shall we call it re-imagination - of what education can do. 
Rest will be easy.

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