I had an opportunity to connect with Frank Feather, the futurist, interim CEO, and advisor to the government of China and ask his view on the current education system. I really enjoyed his perspective, I hope you do too:
Mass education was the best we could do in the Industrial Era, and so we educated people on the basis of the factory model. This is the mass education we have today. It served us well. We could educate masses of people with few teachers, in production-line fashion, in batches. And the subject matter was also taught in batch mode. And that model may still be appropriate for some types of skills training in some environments in some countries. But it is being made obsolete by the Internet Revolution.
The Internet smashes the “mass” model to smithereens. Education must move towards individualized e-learning, where learners can pick and chose material, delivered in an interactive, content-rich, multimedia format, with mentoring or tutoring from a worldwide virtual faculty, learning at their own pace. In this way, virtual classrooms of people can assemble from all over the world, thus also facilitating multi-cultural learning and cross-barrier understanding. In other words, the planet becomes a virtual classroom. People can learn from anywhere. The brick-and-mortar factory-like classroom is obsolete. Developing countries can leap-frog into the e-learning age without ever needing to build classrooms or schools.
As for unintended consequences, the one main objection to e-learning that gets raised by techno-phobic luddites is the negative impact on social skills. This is a fasle fear; a myth. McLuhan observed that the more technology there is that comes into our lives, the more we compensate through social interaction. We are humans. We need social interaction. Yes, there are a few who become addicted to the Web and don’t have much of a social life. But they are the same introverts and isolationists that we have always had. Yet many of them are actually very social online. The Web becomes our social glue. And that is what the social networking phenomenon is all about. The Web will become more social as full multimedia develops, with webcams moving us to full “multimedia mail.” Just this week, Gmail added “video chat” to its toolbar.
But in its simplest form, as McLuhan talked about this, it means that if we use banking machines rather than spending time interacting with bank tellers (and I doubt how social that is anyway), we will find time to talk with other people in other settings instead—even while waiting in line at the banking machine! But the challenge with e-learning is that we need to make sure that young people do develop their social skills, not just via web-cams, but in person with real live humans. And that can be accomplished in local communities. Education needs to perhaps build in some social assignments where students go and participate and then come back and share online—in e-classrooms or on social networks—the human communication skills they learned from the assignment.
I think the biggest challenge to all of this is inertia by educators and governments. Education is threatened by this kind of technology. They naturally fear being replaced, just as did the luddites. And that is because they know they cannot actually compete with this technology, both in its extraordinary capabilities, and in its far lower cost of delivery. How these obstacles will be overcome I am not sure. It probably will start with higher education institutions such as University of Phoenix online. Or in the private school system, such as in Montessori schools, which are far more tactile in their teaching methods. It may simply come through consumer rebellion against the exorbitant cost of university education. Or from governments who cannot afford to pay for public education. There will be a few leaders; more will follow. Then there will come a tipping point and the whole thing will switch over and suddenly will become the popular thing to do. This may take a generation to occur, as when Gen X or Gen Y become the decision makers in education and government, and they take the entire system in new directions.
Clearly there are parallels in what Frank sees with both the current situation described and the solution proposed on this site. At some point soon we must address the transition planning. How will we separate from the infrastructure that is aging in place? Perhaps communities with the oldest facilities should be the pilots. More on that later, but if you have ideas – please share!