The Education Revolution

Kristina Klinkforth is an education professional with the Center for Global Politics at Freie Universität Berlin. For the past eight years, she has designed curricula and didactical formats in the realm of digital learning.

For about 2,000 years university teaching and schooling have remained the same. Students came together in a classroom or a lecture hall to listen to the professor and share in his/ her wisdom. Two features characterized this setting. First, knowledge was shared in a centralized fashion. Although more recently seminar styles have become much more interactive and sophisticated, lecturers remain at the center of attention, much as broadcasters. Second, the teaching setting remained stationary. Students and teachers alike had to come to a specific location to conduct and partake in lectures and seminars. Only recently, this setting has slowly, yet forcefully, begun to change. At the heart of this change are information and communication technologies (ICTs) and a growing range of digital learning strategies that follow suit. In this context, some even speak of an ‘education revolution‘ that is altering our understanding of teaching and learning in profound ways. But what are the aspects of this revolution? In the following, I propose three distinct elements of an education revolution that we are confronted with today.

The Methods Revolution: In recent years, the two classical characteristics of teaching and learning – being stationary and being centralized – have been challenged fundamentally. Instead, decentralized and digitized peer-to-peer learning mechanisms have come to the fore. Online-based learning formats are becoming more frequent and more widely accepted worldwide. In the process, learning platforms have developed from basic content gateways to elaborate personalized learning systems, offering individual design choices and communication styles. Interaction has become the buzzword of digital learning. Discussion boards are among the most classical asynchronous interaction formats. Students log into a forum to share thoughts and receive feedback. Meanwhile, discussion boards have already been relegated to the lesser interaction formats. Instead, wikis and blogs evolved as more focused asynchronous interaction techniques. In addition, live video conferencing software offers possibilities for synchronous communication and exchange. In this new world of learning technologies, lecturers perform a moderating function rather than a knowledge ‘broadcasting‘ function. Consequently, peer-to-peer rating and exchange is much more a feature of digital learning today than it has ever been in the classroom. Teaching and learning is therefore under way of becoming a networked, decentralized, and exchange-based affair – thus profoundly differing from classical learning formats.

The Skill Revolution: As early as 1990, in his landmark volume Turbulence in World Politics political scientist James N. Rosenau postulated that novel broadcast and online techniques ushered in a ‘skill revolution‘ among citizens. All of a sudden, people could follow events that were taking place in remote areas of the world. This way, far-away events gained importance for their own lives. Naturally, so Rosenau’s proposition contends, ordinary people gained in technical and cognitive skills to follow and handle these events. Applied to the world of education, it could be argued that students have evolved way beyond passively taking in knowledge as the old teaching model stipulated. While Rosenau’s observation is correct, however, I argue that digital nativeness, online information and cognition skills, as well as tech-savviness are not skills that come naturally to many, although these skills are increasingly wanted in a range of job profiles. Consequently, if education is geared towards training students for the job market, very different skill sets need to be conveyed to students today. Thus, classical teaching and learning styles are oftentimes not suited anymore to instill academic and professional skills needed in the digital age. Consequently, although novel online-based methods have become available, it needs true educational expertise and innovation to wield them in ways that build skills needed for today’s job markets. The Supplier Revolution: For hundreds of years, universities provided expertise for knowledge generation as well as for didactical design. With the digital educational revolution at hand as outlined above, this expertise is undergoing rapid change as well. Along the way, many universities start to resemble dinosaurs stranded in the educational landscape rather than beacons of innovation. Harvard University and the MIT represent but an early exception with the development of their edX platform. Instead, a host of new players in the realm of education emerge and establish themselves on the global education market. Among them are platform providers such as Blackboard or Pearson Education. They create novel and personalized digital learning environments which are corporate rather than public in nature. In addition, companies such as Udemy, Coursera or German-based iversity offer massive open online courses (MOOCs) – short, video-based learning formats open to thousands of students at the same time. Most recently, the MOOC hype has somewhat subsided, because business as well as didactical models have been failing so far – the point is, however, that new, and often corporate, actors develop far-reaching expertise in education formats, thus increasingly outperforming universities in this very field.

If correct, then what do we do with these observations? First, methods of teaching and learning are changing with a resilience that should not be ignored, but managed in much better ways. This does not mean that the classical teaching model does not have merit anymore – but it should be applied wisely and amended with other teaching methods, depending on the respective learning goals. Second, building academic and professional skills in the information age requires new types of educational expertise. This presupposes that lecturers are open to receiving and educational institutions to developing training options for employing and tailoring digital learning technologies in meaningful ways. Third, universities should not give up a vibrant and important domain: the development of didactical formats. Shaping and offering learning formats should remain a public affair, if probably not – as hoped by many – a democratized one, as the recent rise and fall of the MOOC concept has demonstrated.