Saturday, February 3, 2018

Converging Trends in Education: Is It All Coming Together Now?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the history and the future of education. I feel like I’m sitting at a particularly strong vantage point as a parent who has chosen homeschooling because of the limitations I faced in the traditional education options set before me and as a community college faculty member whose full-time position as a professor just got eliminated in what is clearly a move to change the fundamental nature of the school’s purpose. Add to this the fact that my expertise is in studying the historical trajectory of education through the lens of rhetoric, and I feel like I have a pretty good sense of how this particular stew of factors starts to come together. 

This is going to be a two-part post. In Part 1, I will examine some trends that I see converging together at this historical point in American education. Part 2 will discuss the way that education is likely to diverge into separate paths as a result of this convergence. 

Here are the different trends that I see coming together at this particular moment: 
  • On-the-job training: Many companies have decided to supplement or (in growing numbers) circumvent traditional certification and degree requirements by bringing their training in-house. Employees like these options because it takes the guesswork out of trying to get the skills necessary for a future, hypothetical job, and employers like the option because it allows them to make sure their workers have the exact skills necessary to meet their needs. 
  • Online education demand increases: Traditional education is being displaced by online options. Even in traditional classrooms, online work is often being used as a supplement (or sometimes substitute) for face-to-face instruction. In the name of individualization, producing easily analyzed standard results, and increasing the number of students who can be reached, everything from elementary school classrooms to alternative online high schools to graduate courses has seen an increased demand for online options. 
  • A distrust in higher education: Some of this is political. There’s a growing sense of distrust for expertise in general as the Age of Information has brought us the ability to find answers to complex questions in seconds instead of decades. Some of it is economic. As the cost of college increases and the number of jobs available for the degrees sought declines, people just don’t see college as worth the investment. Together, these influences have resulted in a general skepticism about the value of higher education. 

The point that brings all of these converging trends together into a holistic pattern is technology, especially automation. Existing automation and advancing technology has made on-the-job training possible, increased the development of and access to online courses, and been responsible for the rise of a gig economy that further deepens the distrust of education as a wise investment. 

With the promise/threat of automation looming in something between the immediate and quasi-near future, education has been placed in a precarious position. 

Education is necessarily future-focused. Education (from pre-school to graduate school) makes promises about preparing students for what the future holds. While no one has ever been 100% sure about what exactly the future would look like, we are facing an unprecedented sense of uncertainty. All the way back in 2011, Business Insider was considering the ways that a college degree was outdated in the face of an uncertain future workplace. Now, seven years later, those warnings feel even more relevant. Training for a specific technical career over the span of four or five years feels futile. Who knows if the career is even going to exist? And if it does, what guarantees are there that what you learned four years ago will still be relevant? 

It’s a tough time to be in charge of organizing, planning, and marketing education. I can understand why administrators are in a panic, and I don’t envy their position. However, too many of them are responding in exactly the wrong way. Many have decided to focus on the juiciest career options through specialization and hyper-focused “pathways” to specific careers. Just like the dog chasing the tantalizing mechanical rabbit, they’re never going to catch up. Those specific career needs will always remain just out of reach, and in the meantime, companies are finding their own way to meet their actual needs, making education look less and less relevant for those fields every day. 

Pearson recently announced a partnership with Brinker International (the owner of restaurants like Chili’s and Maggiano’s) to offer no-cost education options for employees who work at least 24 hours a week. On-the-job training is being heralded as a savior for the manufacturing industry, which has struggled to match skills with need. While manufacturing already has a very low education demand (with 80% of production workers holding neither an Associate’s nor Bachelor’s degree), we can expect this trend to make traditional education even less necessary. 

I don’t think these initiatives are necessarily a bad thing. They offer people the opportunity to get to work faster and receive the training they need to potentially move up the ranks of their place of employment and receive higher pay and a better standard of living. Not everyone needs to go to college, and I do think that some of these trends are helping to balance out the over-reliance on Bachelor’s degrees as the key to middle class access. 

The problem comes from the reaction to these realities. Instead of recognizing that technical training might be done somewhere else, too many schools (especially those serving low-income and minority students) feel the need to directly compete with these new methods instead of differentiating themselves and offering a different kind of education for different kinds of careers or (and this is the part that's been lost completely in too many discussions) for the sake of learning and being an informed citizen capable of critical thinking. Trump's State of the Union calls for community colleges to be converted into vocational training points directly at this kind of short-sighted, damaging thinking. 

Let’s go back to Pearson. Their partnership directly with corporations should come as no surprise, and they’re happy to take a large slice of as many pies as they can. They’re also working to automate higher education course delivery with self-paced (and mostly instructor-free) general education options. The economic benefits of online options have long been touted, and some see them as a way to make sure that everyone has access to a quality education. Utopia usually isn’t as simple as it first appears, though, and we’ve also known for quite some time that access alone isn’t enough and online options don’t successfully reach everyone. Predictably, it is the most vulnerable student populations (the ones our utopian dreams promised to save) that are being harmed the most. As the New York Times reported earlier this year: 
“But in high schools and colleges, there is mounting evidence that the growth of online education is hurting a critical group: the less proficient students who are precisely those most in need of skilled classroom teachers.”
Pressure to standardize online courses to make them infinitely replicable further eliminates the elements of teaching that reach students who are hard to reach. The result of online education can be meaningfully-crafted online courses that reach extremely motivated students who wouldn’t have access to education otherwise, but that doesn’t negate the fact that putting all of the emphasis on online education cuts off the only viable pathways that many at-risk and just-average students have to meaningful education, and many of them don't see the pay-off as worth the risk in the first place.

So where does that leave education? What will come out on the other side of the space where all of these converging trends come together? I have some theories, and I’ll explore them in Part 2. 

Photos: Photo by Mark Duffel on UnsplashJason Leung on Unsplash 

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