What is education? It seems like a simple question, but over the past several months, it has become increasingly more difficult to answer. Is education the transfer of knowledge from expert to learner? Is it the development of competencies? Is it something that happens in a classroom, online, on the job, or just anywhere at all? How can we tell if education is working – do we give students a written test or a competency-based assessment, or do we have them create a digital artifact to share with others? How do we assign credit to these various activities – does credit even matter? These are just some of the questions that are being asked and their answers are challenging the traditional ways of thinking about education and learning.
One of the major assumptions that has been challenged recently is the primacy of content in our educational systems. Content has traditionally been the difference between education at a community college and education at an elite university. At a community college, professors may select the textbooks, but at an elite university the professors are the ones who write the textbooks. The students at top universities get a better education because they learn directly from the people who are actively doing the research and advancing the field. The students at community colleges will always be a step behind, not least because of the time it takes to produce a textbook. In the current climate, when many fields are advancing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up, the access gap between students at elite universities and community colleges is widening.
Or at least it was, until about a year ago.
When massive open online courses (MOOCs) erupted onto the scene in 2012, higher education freaked out, literally. Debates erupted across the spectrum, with traditionalists in one corner, online educators in another corner; students in one corner, textbook publishers in another corner; state university systems in one corner, small liberal arts colleges in another corner; and, well, you get the idea. None of the debates have been conclusively resolved: some people are afraid of MOOCs, some see them as a panacea for higher education, and others don’t know what to think at all.
Why have MOOCs caused so much fuss? MOOCs challenge one of the main tenants of education, that “content is king.” When Harvard, Stanford, and MIT offer their courses online, for free, to anyone, content is overthrown. When courses are built using open educational resources (OER) rather than textbooks from major publishers, content is overthrown. Now, students at community colleges, or even just sitting in their own living rooms, have access to the same content as students at elite universities.
So if content isn’t king, what is? The emerging model for education is school-as-a-service. As Jeff Jarvis writes in Business Insider, “Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something.” MOOCs and the vast availability of content are forcing educators to think about students differently – not as vessels that need to be filled, but as clients that need to reach certain outcomes. In this light, education and training are viewed not as products but as services, and MOOCs are leading the way by equalizing the content playing field. As MOOC pioneer Dave Cormier says in the video below, “A MOOC is a catalyst for knowledge.”
If we think about school-as-a-service, then the focus of education turns to outcomes: What exactly will students be able to do? For businesses, this question becomes “What do we need our employees to be able to do and what is the best way to train them to achieve those goals?” As Jeff Jarvis writes, “When we think of ourselves as services, then we strive not to own products but instead to add value to a process. When we provide service, we become more accountable for the outcomes our clients achieve.”
Like Internet-as-a-service and software-as-a-service, the school-as-a-service model is based on having a variety of options at our fingertips all of the time. In 2011 Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Open Education Solutions, envisioned school-as-a-service as an environment where you “open your browser and you have learning options, multiple providers, multiple devices, customized engaging learning anywhere anytime.” Now in 2013, many of these elements are already available. MOOCs and OER provide many avenues for content, mobile learning technologies enable students to access their courses on multiple devices, adaptive learning technologies provide customized solutions for learners, and Web 2.0 and social media integration increase learners’ engagement. And of course, since the Internet is always on, this learning can take place anywhere anytime.
The evolution of education from content to service is just beginning, but judging by how quickly the general educational landscape is changing, once it catches on the transformation will be fast and furious. Higher education is notorious for dragging its feet, so as with elearning and the adoption of other technology-enabled learning tools, it will be up to private organizations and corporate trainers to lead the way.
Content is no longer king. The new game of thrones is being played among Outcomes, Competencies, Technology, Certification, Adaptive Learning, and likely several contenders that haven’t yet emerged. Undoubtedly, there will be countless alliances, conspiracies, and upsets, and we are all anxious to see who will get to ride the dragons.
Copyright 2013 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.
Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– offers 25+ years of training and talent management for executives, business owners, and top performing sales executives in taking the leap from the ordinary to extraordinary. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual.
Learn more about Bryant at LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/bryantnielson