The disruptive democratisation of education

This session examined the decentralised capacity of the Internet to nurture and disseminate innovation and ideas that promote an open and participatory online culture which is increasingly incompatible with authoritarian principles. Further discussion identified the essential importance of lifelong learning and iterative/on-going education strategies to maintain and update skills in an ever evolving digital market place – as well as the progressive erosion of academic credentials in favour of professional achievement and verifiable current skills. Over the next 5 years online education and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) will cause serious disruption to the incumbent players in the higher education market – but with an expanded role for value added intermediary services, guidance and support which are complementary to these new digital learning pathways. Online education will open up new learning opportunities in the developing world, although shortfalls in literacy skills and disability barriers will need to be addressed. Finally, it was suggested that professionalised information management skills can help democratise and rationalise access to online education resources – particularly through the effective tagging and referencing of content to support the retrieval of discrete course/subject components.

Specific questions for further discussion

(links take you to the relevant forum subtopic):

Q1: should public investment in education be spread across people's lives rather than concentrated on pre-career education?

Q2: Should future education models focus on how to authenticate and exploit online information - not how to memorise it?

Q3: Will online education be dominated by popular or commercially valuable courses at the expense of other culturally valuable disciplines?

Link to main discussion topic:

The future impact of the Internet on education and lifelong learning

The most sought after skill today is creativity. This is a non-linear skill and difficult to teach within a traditional educational context – but it is catered for by the decentralised non-linear capacity of the Internet to nurture and disseminate innovation, ideas and creative output.

It was suggested that the open and participatory culture of the modern Internet makes its benefits less compatible with cultures based on authority (e.g. Wikipedia versus traditional academic journals). Most approaches to teaching and education are still based upon a 19th century paradigm – which offers an opportunity for libraries leverage their experience in the professionalization of information management and media literacy to better inform educators on the demands of the modern digital learning environment.

Currently in the developed world people are now going to have an average of 5-6 different jobs during their careers. Therefore the concept of paying $250,000 for a four year degree is a scam in a context where one degree cannot possibly prepare an individual for the learning/educational challenges of those subsequent six jobs. This begs the question, in an era where digitally enabled lifelong learning and iterative/on-going education is essential – are traditional higher education approaches fit for purpose for the modern world? This contributes towards the dismantlement of the “myth of credentials”. A degree from Harvard will become less relevant than a solid track record of professional achievement. Skills will be increasingly assessed and valued on the basis of “doing something” or “achieving something” as opposed to possessing an academic certification of those skills.

The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

The availability of MOOCs is expanding rapidly – according to the Chancellor of the University of Southern California, that institution currently generates around $114 million per year from operating such courses. It was predicted that in the next 5-10 years online courses will be serving more learners than the combined provision of physical courses offered by the world’s universities. This will have both revolutionary and disruptive effects on the global education landscape over the next 10 years.

Online courses will replace the classroom to become the dominant educational mechanism. Alongside this there will be a crucial role of value-added intermediary services which help students who want additional guidance or to explore more detailed subjects/interests. People will be prepared to travel significant distances to access the education that they think is relevant (as opposed to that which others define as relevant). This education will not be a simple of transposition of that provided by high end universities – it will look different and be more driven by individual/localised demand.

It was also pointed out that effectively communicating and teaching information requires more than just making information available online. As such online education resources and courses will still need to be supported in many instances by intermediaries – although whether these intermediaries will remain the same as those who run the traditional higher education systems in the past is not clear.

Online education in the developing world

Lack of reading skills and literacy skills will remain key obstacles to providing access to online resources and opportunity to the third billion of Internet users. In particular in Brazil where blindness and visual impairment rates are high  with 6.5 million people suffering from blindness or impaired vision (the global figure is 285 million) the availability of audio description software and other disability support options will play an important role.   

The assumption used to be people required traditional literacy in order to become computer literate. However this is no longer a straight forward sequential relationship. Information and technology literacy can often precede the ability to read and write.

India has over a million schools – but in any one day 3,500 of them have no teachers. Therefore access to online education resources will continue to have a huge impact. In India not enough young people are going to university. High school dropout rates are at 70% with the total number of students in university at 10-12 million. The government wants to raise this to 30 million. In this context 1000 new universities are required, along with the appropriate number of professors with the right skill sets to teach 20 million additional students. This is not something that can be quickly achieved. Instead a hub and spoke model has been adopted, where a professor with the right skills can broadcast online to a series of different classrooms supported by less experienced teachers. This creates a blended learning environment which maximises the potential of intermediary supported remote access to teaching expertise.

The future consequences for higher education

In his 1997 book, “The Innovators Dilemma”, Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen describes what he calls the mechanism of “disruptive innovation”. His model starts with a group of incumbent industries chasing a high margin over-served customer (because that is where the highest profits are). As a result the incumbents fail to pay sufficient attention to new market entrants who are focusing instead on the low margin customers.

Eventually incumbents wake up to the reality that the new entrants have captured the entire base of their industry (and the new entrants become the new incumbent dominators of the market). In a higher education context, this process will play out in the areas of learning traditionally ignored by high end universities (such as vocational learning) and then proceed to migrate up the educational food chain. By the time universities realise what is happening significant disruption to the market will have occurred.

The wave of impending disruption driven by online education is going to benefit users and learners – whilst undermining significant players in the education market including publishers and providers of existing proprietary education platforms. There is also the potential for polarisation of education towards courses which are popular or economically relevant – at the expense of other subjects or topics.

The role of libraries in online education

Libraries have many roles in relation to education and learning, but some need to be invented or reinvented. Libraries need a “push” component – they need to proactively advertise and market their services as opposed to just waiting for people to visit.

MOOCs and blended learning approaches would benefit from the skills of librarianship in order to optimize, tag, reference and label the material for the retrieval of discrete components (e.g. tagging 15 minutes segments of online video lecturers). Otherwise academia will be creating the online equivalent of the “Indiana Jones warehouse” (a vast fictional warehouse used by the US government to store thousands of top secret crates for safekeeping in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark). Traditional 19th century approaches to knowledge segmented information into disciplinary silos. The reality of the digital age is that more cross-sectional approaches are both valuable and necessary.

Professionalised information management skills are generally invisible – librarians don’t know how to promote/articulate the value of these skills, teachers often ignore them, and students tend to assume that they know better. There is a significant gap in this area and these skills are not sufficiently understood or respected within academia and government. Ultimately one of the reasons that universities, schools and libraries are still useful is that are they only actors capable of scaling up educational access on a national basis.

Some learners in developing countries may be prepared to walk four hours to a centre where they can download access MOOCs – but that activity in isolation will not effectively or rapidly disseminate knowledge and skills across an entire nation or population. A long term sustainable approach to this is essential. Learning from the experience of others and mentoring programmes in the context of the digital age will become increasingly important.

It was predicted that there will be substantial future demand for intermediaries who provide context and added assistance, direction and value as complementary services to users of online courses. Students and learners will need to access these services somewhere – and that somewhere could be the library, but it would require new marketing approaches. One potential obstacle is the number of shy, uncharismatic librarians in public libraries.