The book ‘Non Obvious’ by Rohit Bhargava present an intriguing exploration of how careful observation and thought can reveal emerging trends and as the subtitle suggest ‘predict the future’. For educators the ability to identify the trends which will deliver the best outcomes for our students from the noise of fads is alluring. While the talk of new technologies, of learner centric pedagogies and teaching for lifelong learning play the part of the obvious trends in education identifying the non-obvious trend is a more challenging endeavour.
When the conversations about education are analysed carefully as Bhargava suggests one trend seems to be emerging. Increasingly educational institutions, their teachers and their students exist in a highly connected world. Empowered by social media, online learning opportunities, emerging professional learning communities and traditional face to face networks the potential success offered by high levels of connectedness places pressure on existing notions of competition between institutions. A clear theme throughout conversations and presentations at ‘The International Conference on the Future of Education’ in Florence was that of connectedness. It was a theme that was supported by the mix of attendees and speakers with all sectors of the education industry (school, university, business & government) represented and while each presenter addressed issues from their unique perspective it was clear that we had much in common and even more to learn from each other.
Traditionally the education market has been seen as a ‘zero-sum game’. Competition for student enrolments between institutions has led to a reluctance to share best practice but once this conception is challenged and it is understood that heightened levels of connectedness may become a measure of an institutions success a new model emerges. Just as in a link economy on the internet institutions gain value from the degree to which they connect with other institutions and with other industries. The result for the individual user of the institution is access to the very best education, provided through the institution as a result of its interconnectedness. For the institution comes access to new ideas, new resources and diverse opportunities that they themselves could not provide. Seen at the larger level of the educational market this new connectedness allows for great expansion and access to new market places not accessible to individual institutions.
For a school or university, the obvious connections are initially those which can be formed with other schools or universities. This horizontal connectedness can allow students to access a more diverse range of courses, foster sharing of best practice and allow for collaborative problem solving. In a time of rapid change access to the shared intelligence of multiple institutions is more likely to surface new solutions to emerging challenges. Such sharing between institutions needs to be accompanied by a shift in how competition is understood and for the formation of relationships of trust and goals for mutual growth. Horizontal connections are seen to exist already between teachers utilising social networks to share ideas or resources and find solutions. Institutions have traditionally accessed this form of horizontal connectedness through industry associations such as ‘Association of Independent Schools’ but their is the potential for closer connections between institutions with more deliberate sharing of resources.
If horizontal connections are those between institutions at the same point in the marketplace, then vertical connections are those across sectors. Collaborations already exist between schools and universities for specific purposes such as teacher education and related research projects. Closer collaborations could bring new advantages including access to new course offerings, opportunities to commence tertiary study while in a school environment and access to specialist knowledge. Universities are able to play an import role in implementing research based educational strategies and close connections are likely to reduce pain points between researchers and practitioners. Universities could gain access to new physical locations by utilising schools as distant campuses and schools can provide their communities with a wide range of services that extend their utility beyond the traditional school curriculum.
Beyond physical connections are those which can be facilitated through online links. Horizontal and vertical connections can exist at a global level extending the reach of schools and universities into new territories, offering students access to the broadest possible curriculum and allowing for meaningful cultural exchanges to become a normal part of the learning experience of all students. For aspects of equity of access, such connections allow students to benefit from the very best educational offerings on a global scale and as the task of building these connections is inherent to their institution the experience should be friction free. Students should benefit from access to a breadth of courses that their local institution could not hope to provide while it becomes increasingly feasible for institutions to specialise in specific low-volume courses while having access to a global market that would ensure adequate student numbers.
Beyond the horizontal and vertical connections described are those across industries. Students at all levels can benefit from connections with industry and the access that this provides to specialist expertise and resources brings new opportunities. For industry connections with schools and institutions allow for tailored pathways to be developed that ensure new-graduates have the most desirable skill sets. Industry also gains insights from working closely with educational professionals and are able to utilise this expertise in the planning and provision of professional development plans for existing staff. In industries where staff are increasingly expected to be able to learn, unlearn and re-learn new skills and capacities as new challenges emerge access to highly trained educators is desirable.
This style of connectedness has the potential to shift the role of the educator further away from the subject specific expert of the industrial age model, towards the facilitator of learning that they are increasingly described as. The delivery of such a broad array of courses would preclude a role as expert across numerous disciplines but in this connected learning environment students would increasingly benefit from a learning guide who can shape the learning experience and facilitate the most appropriate connections. Existing models from recently emerging industries may serve as a guide to how institutions view their role in this highly connected space. Uber is a service that fundamentally shifts how we perceive car ownership. It provides users with access to the transport they need when they need it by connecting them with people willing to provide a service. Airbnb provides a similar service by connecting people in need of accommodation with people who have space to share. A connected institution could become a similar conduit for educational services between those with a particular learning goal and those with expertise to share. Interestingly Airbnb is the world’s largest accommodation provider, yet it owns no rooms and Uber, owns no cars. If existing brick and mortar institutions are to survive the growth of online only organisations such as Khan Academy, their willingness to become highly connected could be their strength and saving grace.
By Nigel Coutts