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Education, Apollo 13, And Hollywood

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Education, Apollo 13, And Hollywood

Last week I had the pleasure of being part of a discussion panel at the Educause Conference in Orlando.  For the uninitiated,...

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Last week I had the pleasure of being part of a discussion panel at the Educause Conference in Orlando.  For the uninitiated, Educause is one of the premier conferences in the USA for the higher education sector, and attracts teachers, institutions, learners, providers, “thinkers”, and technology and service providers. Educause itself is a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology. It was an honor to join my fellow “Analytics that Inform” panelists to debate and discuss subjects like: What’s the state of analytics today and tomorrow? Insights on areas of strength and weakness in the learning process? Faculty engagement? What are the main driving forces for an institution to invest in analytics and Code Halos models? (And the keynote speech by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was terrific: who knew LBJ sidled up to a young, impressionable Doris in a romantic, moonlit garden setting, only to tell her that, more than any other woman, it was she who reminded him most of his mother?)

Having joined Ben Pring not that long ago at Thomas Friedman’s “Next New World” event in San Francisco – a major impression I came away with when comparing the two events was “cognitive dissonance”. Where the headline at Friedman’s event was “Houston, we have a problem” in American education today… and yet the lack of a sense of urgency at Educause to do something about it was palpable. If indeed there is a “Crossroads Moment” a’comin’, at Educause, by contrast, the atmosphere conveyed a palpable sense of “yes, there’s cool new technologies… we need to harness them… adaptive learning and analytics are coming… but we’re doing fine, and should pat ourselves on the back as Educators for the job we’re doing” All well and good (and noble), but what this position appeared to lack was any declarative must do imperatives.  My initial conclusion was that – for an industry so many claims are on the precipice of radical disruption – now is not the time to walk the middle of the road.   

Clarity is clearly needed, and not changing from the models of the past is NOT an option. This is about our children, and I’d posit that all roads to the future of work in America – and the developed world at large - pass through the education sector. And I’d also posit that it may be the one industry that is truly “too big to fail” (or at least, too important to be allowed to fail). And for all the potential anxiety about the future of higher education perhaps being “the next Detroit” Educause offered some positive signs that change can (and should) occur without disruptive cataclysm.

An anecdote: I recently attended my daughter’s 7th grade back-to-school night.  We are blessed to have a wonderful public school system in my community; and from what I saw of her new teachers – and the curriculum they’re executing for this year – it made me wish I could do seventh grade over in 2014 instead of 1986.  Interactive, platform-based learning helping teachers zero in on successes, trouble-spots, and to help calibrate more successful techniques early. Excellent, new breed AV equipment.  iPads, Google-drive accounts, 3D printers – and yes – online learning from the likes of Khan Academy sprinkled liberally in the mix. 

But more than any of the digital gizmos, I was really impressed by the caliber of the teachers I met with – and their confidence in embracing the technology to become smarter, more informed, and more responsive facilitators of learning.   It was enough to make a reasonable tech-savvy dad feel confident that the kids are alright. But this is the Bay Area techbubble… And it makes me wonder if this model is being applied to the pervasive “horror stories” of public schools nationwide that we hear so much about? 

My colleague Venkat Srinivasan recently shared with me an article about “the Hollywoodization” of Education. Summarizing in pertinent part: “With online courses comes a new yardstick: popularity. Acting ability is only one part of being a movie star: charisma, luck, and project selection matter too. Similarly, teaching ability will be only one part of being a superstar online teacher. Showmanship, clarity, mass appeal, production values, etc. will all matter too.” Venkat and I agree that an intriguing part of the concept is the comparison of faculty to stars – something that may motivate the constituent – and deliver intrinsic motivation for recognition. And may also drive faculty pay and performance while reducing the barriers to change. 

But the analogy is also imperfect. As a movie-goer, you consume; it’s a one-way street. With education, you consume – and get a credential in return. Consider a different analogy: you used to go to the oracle/sage/yogi on the mountaintop for the answers. There was only one oracle.  Today, there’s only one Google. There’s only one Harvard. Yesterday, you went to see a “Paramount” picture and the stars were on contract exclusive to that studio. Today, you go to get a “Harvard” education.  Tomorrow, will it mean something to get a “Thomas Pink” credential? Or an “iTunesU” credential?   

“Higher education for higher pay” is one of the taglines that’s really stuck with me since Educause. As long as you’re “getting” something in the give-to-get bargain, then the Hollywood analogy is still imperfect, but the source, scale, and distribution model of the credential starts to change, along the historical lines of Hollywood. As the Hollywoodization piece states: “Entertainment audiences have for a long time been happy to accept broadcast content vs. live performances.” If education distribution changes, but the give-to-get stays the same, then the model changes profoundly.

And I think we’re starting to see that happen. To me, the “future” of how this shakes out seems to dangle somewhere out around 2020… so we’ll know in 6 years. This is going to be around the time that my 7th grader is getting ready to enter college… or will it be her own, Google-sponsored MOOC eduPhD (“brought to you by our sponsors at Harvard-Udacity University!”)? Stay tuned…

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