Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Of Sailing Ships and Steam Engines

Attending the NCAIS Innovation Conference last month, Grant Lichtman reinforced the concept that the world of work and education is rapidly changing.
Education, which was once a closed system where the teacher knew and controlled all the information and knowledge, has quickly become a widely dispersed commodity through the ubiquitous sharing of information on the internet. Information can now be easily accessed through a few quick key strokes, and knowledge can be gained from taking any of a number of online classes.
This radical change is causing disruptions in an educational system that has been firmly in place for over 100 years. This system came about as a result of the industrial revolution which needed employees to work in factories, and who could sit for long periods of time, follow directions, perform repetitive work, and use specialized knowledge.
The competitive market place that we currently have doesn’t need such workers, and our educational system must and is changing to keep pace. Where the industrial model was built on creating contained, controlled, predictable, scalable, repeatable, and measurable systems, today’s model for growth and development calls for a system that is creative, adaptive, permeable, dynamic, systemic, and self-correcting. This new way of thinking is radically different, and our schools are feeling the impact.
As Christensen and Horn shared in a recent New York Times article, we are in the midst of tremendous change in how teaching and learning take place and we are struggling to design an appropriate educational system for the new “normal.” While the article focuses on colleges and universities, their line of thinking applies equally to K-12 schooling.
The analogy that is used in the article is the emergence of steam engines used in transatlantic travel. They point out that, in the early 1800’s, steamships were fairly unreliable and used mainly on inland waters. By 1819, transatlantic trips were being made using a combination of sail and steam engines, and by the early 1900’s sailing ship companies were out of business. “Adapt or Die,” could be an applicable slogan.
Higher education is caught in the cross-hairs of rising cost and the disruption in the educational model that technology brings with it. Many colleges and universities are moving to online classes which take the form of blended, flipped classrooms or MOOCs. This hybrid use of technology, in combination with a traditional model, is the same that was used as steamships began to replace sailing vessels. History shows that steamships won the contest in delivering cargo and passengers across the oceans, and there’s no doubt that technology will become the dominate educational delivery system in the very near future.
Christiansen and Horn go on to say that research shows “industries teach us that those that truly innovate – fundamentally transforming the model, instead of just incorporating the technology into established methods of operation – will have the final say.”  They also offer that as online learning evolves, students will be able to customize their experiences. That is to say, they could have choices, though more expensive, in designing their college experiences by taking classes on campus, socializing and living with other students. The opportunities and combinations could become endless. Some students may choose to “mix and match” their experiences by taking online classes, living on a campus, living abroad, or attending learning spaces such as Dev Bootcamp in Chicago and San Francisco.
At the recent SAIS conference in Atlanta, Ian Symmonds pointed out that “mature industries, like schools, don’t change rapidly.” It’s true, but if schools are not in touch with new technologies and a rapidly changing world of work they will become obsolete much faster than the demise of the sailing ship industry.

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