Reflections from The Future of Education Conference in Florence, Italy
After two days of discussing the future of education with a host of educators from around the world in the beautiful city of Florence, the clearest statement on the matter might be that ‘it is complicated’. What is perhaps clear is that on a global level there is an understanding that education needs to evolve to meet the needs of our students in a modern world. There are some clear trends and it is interesting to note that the challenges faced at one phase of level exist just as much at later stage.
From a convergence of technology, understandings of how we learn and from an understanding of new purposes for education the most consistent message is that education must increasing become learner centred. Our goal must be to put the learner at the centre of our understanding and they must be the focus of all we do. Most importantly we need to be empowering our learners to take charge of their learning, to show them how they may control their pathways and become genuinely agent learning. Such a process is a significant shift for educators and our knowledge of the processes of learning rather than our subject knowledge is what matters most.
Doing so will require a rethinking of our approach to curriculum. Rather than a focus on what the students need to be taught we must focus on teaching our students how to learn as Professor Koutsopoulos of Greece so aptly described. Armed with the skills and importantly the dispositions of effective learners our students should be able to tackle the task of mastering whatever skills or knowledge they require. Such a focus requires a new approach to curriculum design, one that identifies cross discipline skills and is inherently flexible. This is the approach being developed by Ivan Berazhny of Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences in Finland. Ivan’s team has developed a curriculum for university students based significantly on the identification of skills and dispositions, which are common across divergent courses. This understanding of the learning that is common to all courses and alongside this the identification of the outlying regions for each course allows greater flexibility and close integration between the courses. Ivan is identifying a set of meta-competencies which is exist for all learning areas and such a project would bring new opportunities for tight integration within schools. In some respects for Australia our General-Capabilities are an attempt at such an endeavour; however, they do not go far enough.
Many speakers addressed the impact that technology has had and continues to have on education. In a time where technology moves so quickly we must remain aware of the affordances offered by new technology but also continuously check that the new toys are genuinely enhancing the desired learning. Across sections there is great diversity in the manner in which technology is used and while at one level the focus is on access to learning content through Learning Management Systems and online delivery of content that is increasingly the norm for universities there is also an increasing shift towards students becoming creators of content. The challenge that is consistent across all systems and sectors is how to ensure all members of teaching staff and faculty are able to utilise the technology effectively. There remain great differences in the manner in which technology is utilised and all systems are struggling to provide adequate support to staff reluctant to embrace new technologies.
It was also clear that education can benefit greatly from efforts to become more connected. Numerous attendees noted that there is insufficient communication and partnerships between schools and universities and between educators and industry. There are real opportunities for close partnerships to be formed between schools and universities with benefits such as optimised research, inclusion of research based strategies and linkages between academics and practitioners that can enable new models of best practice at all levels. It is also clear that connections with industry have real advantages for schools, universities and most importantly students. Jayne Mitchell of Bishop Grossseteste University in the United Kingdom described a programme where students worked in teams to establish real businesses. Through this programme students learn the very real world skills they will require beyond their university years. Close relationships have been formed with local business to maximise the learning opportunities for students and ensure the programme is well informed. Students learn the practicalities of running a business while also engaging with ethical and moral dilemmas within a collaborative environment where they must be managers and leaders. At a school level Stuart Hawken of Deakin University described how the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) allows students to experience connected, situated learning within their community. VCAL provides students with diverse learning experiences with much of the students learning occurring away from the classroom where they learn the practical skills they will need beyond school. VCAL offers many benefits including a pathway to traditional post school study at university but is also more relevant to the many students for whom such an academic future is not in their best interest.
Lastly it was pleasing to see Universal Design for Learning mentioned by many speakers as a method for ensuring every student is able to gain the most from their time at school. The beauty of Universal Design of Learning (UDL) is that it identifies and accommodates student needs throughout the process of planning and delivery to assessment and evaluation of learning. As an approach to the design of online learning UDL ensures accessibility is built into the user experience. For traditional learning modes UDL allows teachers to identify the barriers, which may exist for students and wherever possible remove or minimise this. The challenge is to ensure that approaches such as UDL are put in place for all students with empathy for the diversity of challenges that are faced. While these challenges are most commonly identified as those linked to diagnosable disabilities a more complete understanding of how our individual circumstances influence our learning will ensure the best outcomes.
More information about the conference including access to the Conference Proceedings is available online - Pixel International Conference on The Future of Education
By Nigel Coutts