Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Signs Pointing Toward the Future of Education

Laura McKenna has an excellent article at Edutopia about the shift away from letter grades. Here are some key takeaways from the article, but if you have a minute, you should go read the whole thing:

  • Assessment policies don't match modern workplace demands. "Somewhat independently, schools and lawmakers have come to the same conclusion: The old models of student assessment are out of step with the needs of the 21st-century workplace and society, with their emphasis on hard-to-measure skills such as creativity, problem solving, persistence, and collaboration."
  • The changing of the guard will result in major changes to education as a whole. "The emerging alignment of K–12 schools with colleges and legislators builds on a growing consensus among educators who believe that longstanding benchmarks like grades, SATs, AP test scores, and even homework are poor measures of students’ skills and can deepen inequities between them. If the momentum holds, a century-old pillar of the school system could crumble entirely, leading to dramatic transitions and potential pitfalls for students and schools alike."
  • The new methods could cause even deeper educational inequities for marginalized student groups.
    "Some critics have suggested that the new transcripts may be a way for wealthier schools, especially private schools like those in the MTC, to give their students an even greater advantage when competing for limited positions at the best universities."
Watching what is happening in higher education right now (from the very front row, in fact, you could even say I'm watching it from the stage, and my character is about to get killed off), I have a personal stake in this game. Of course, you can never really tell when you're at a watershed moment until time has passed and you can look back with the clarity of hindsight to connect all the dots, but I have both the sinking suspicion and the cautious hope that this is one for education (and maybe also our economy and our cultural values since those things are pretty tightly braided together). 

Assessment is important because the evaluation of the final product shapes the process by which the product is created. This is what we mean when we complain that standardized testing forces well-meaning teachers to "teach to the test." It results in a school environment where "covering" the material is more valued than "mastering" it. Most importantly, standardized testing leads to standardized thinking. 

If the answer can be boiled down to a multiple choice question on a test that everyone takes, then the information isn't novel or creative or probably very interesting. Most of being successful on standardized tests (and I say this both as someone who is very good at standardized tests and who has spent many years helping other people do well on them) is a combination of short-term memorization and being able to break down language patterns and use process of elimination to figure out likely right answers. 

The type of reading you do when you are preparing for a standardized test is superficial. You spend a lot of time skimming for key words and definitions, thinking like a test writer rather than a researcher. In fact, if you read the text in a way that no one else has, you will fail the test because that means no questions will arrive at your answers. 

The bottom line is that standardized testing makes for standardized thinking and standardized performance. And here's the thing, if the way that you think and perform can be standardized, it can be automated, and if it can be automated, in the next five to ten years, it will be automated. 

We don't need to produce human cogs for the machine anymore because we now have robot cogs for the machine, and they don't need vacation time, sick days, or overtime pay. They don't get distracted from the task because they are in a fight with their sister. They don't get tired because they were up all night with a sick baby. They do routine tasks better than we do with more consistency while costing less. We cannot compete. 

Some schools (*cough* I'm looking at you STLCC), see the change coming and are reacting by doubling down on standardization. They're turning higher education into course-in-a-box cookie cutter classes that can be easily automated. Eventually, they'll likely replace (or at least greatly reduce the need for) flesh-and-blood teachers and turn to automated grading software and self-paced courses that require very little teacher interaction. I can't tell if this motivation is made in earnest and they really think this is the wave of the future or if they are just short-term thinkers who are trying to make as much money as possible while the making is good. Either way, it's a bad plan for all the reasons pointed out in the Edutopia article. We're going to shift away from standardization and automation in education, not toward it. 

I'm going to make a prediction. If schools don't operate with some foresight and reject standardization and automation as the models for their underlying philosophies, we will soon see a complete de-coupling of credentialing from institutions. 

Think about it. The students coming out of these course-in-a-box programs will not have the skills necessary for the only jobs available, jobs that require creative thinking, flexibility, and independence. When those doing the hiring recognize (as many already have) that a college degree doesn't mean much in terms of matching the skills they're seeking, they'll turn to in-house training and accepting more and more non-traditional methods of demonstrating "education." 

The rise of unschooling homeschoolers, online class platforms like Udemy, Outschool, and Coursera, and a host of other fledgling trial runs demonstrate a likely future. People will be able to get educated in whatever way they see fit: online classes, one-on-one instruction, apprenticeship models, etc. All they'll need to do is demonstrate that they have the skillset necessary for the job, and when the transcript full of A's doesn't do that anymore, the employers will stop asking for it. 

I think it is very likely that we're entering a period where educators will all become independent contractors. The adjunct crisis is already a sort of model for this, albeit one that was arrived at through cruel exploitation rather than innovation. Adjunct instructors, who now make up the bulk of the higher education workforce, have very few formal ties to an institution and instead are free to take their skills anywhere (or to several anywheres simultaneously). If the decoupling of credentialing and institutions continues, we will soon return to an education model much like the Ancient Greeks. We'll all be Plato or Quintillian standing outside the gymnasium trying to convince people to train with us. Except now we'll have Facebook and YouTube to help us.

Photos by Vita Marija Murenaite and Steve Halama 

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