2013-03-04

The Future Of Education Eliminates The Classroom, Because The World Is Your Class

Massive Open Online Courses might seem like best way to use the Internet to open up education, but you’re thinking too small. Technology can turn our entire lives into learning experiences.

This probably sounds familiar: You are with a group of friends arguing about some piece of trivia or historical fact. Someone says, “Wait, let me look this up on Wikipedia,” and proceeds to read the information out loud to the whole group, thus resolving the argument. Don’t dismiss this as a trivial occasion. It represents a learning moment, or more precisely, a microlearning moment, and it foreshadows a much larger transformation--to what I call socialstructed learning.

Socialstructed learning is an aggregation of microlearning experiences drawn from a rich ecology of content and driven not by grades but by social and intrinsic rewards. The microlearning moment may last a few minutes, hours, or days (if you are absorbed in reading something, tinkering with something, or listening to something from which you just can’t walk away). Socialstructed learning may be the future, but the foundations of this kind of education lie far in the past. Leading philosophers of education--from Socrates to Plutarch, Rousseau to Dewey--talked about many of these ideals centuries ago. Today, we have a host of tools to make their vision reality.

Think of a simple augmented reality app on your iPhone such as Yelp Monocle. When you point the phone’s camera toward a particular location, it displays “points of interest” in that location, such as restaurants, stores, and museums. But this is just the beginning. What if, instead of restaurant and store information, we could access historical, artistic, demographic, environmental, architectural, and other kinds of information embedded in the real world?

This is exactly what a project from USC and UCLA called HyperCities is doing: layering historical information on the actual city terrain. As you walk around with your cell phone, you can point to a site and see what it looked like a century ago, who lived there, what the environment was like. Not interested in architecture, passionate about botany and landscaping instead? The Smithsonian’s free iPhone and iPad app, Leafsnap, responds when you take a photo of a tree leaf by instantly searching a growing library of leaf images amassed by the Smithsonian Institution. In seconds, it displays a likely species name along with high-resolution photographs of and information on the tree’s flowers, fruit, seeds, and bark. We are turning each pixel of our geography into a live textbook and a live encyclopedia.

So look beyond MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in thinking about the future education. In our focus on MOOCs and how they are likely to disrupt existing classrooms and educational institutions, particularly colleges and universities, we are missing the much larger story. Today’s obsession with MOOCs is a reminder of the old forecasting paradigm: In the early stages of technology introduction we try to fit new technologies into existing social structures in ways that have become familiar to us.

MOOCs today are our equivalents of early TV, when TV personalities looked and sounded like radio announcers (or often were radio announcers). People are thinking the same way about MOOCs, as replacements of traditional lectures or tutorials, but in online rather than physical settings. In the meantime, a whole slew of forces is driving a much larger transformation, breaking learning (and education overall) out of traditional institutional environments and embedding it in everyday settings and interactions, distributed across a wide set of platforms and tools. They include a rapidly growing and open content commons (Wikipedia is just one example), on-demand expertise and help (from Mac Forums to Fluther, Instructables, and WikiHow), mobile devices and geo-coded information that takes information into the physical world around us and makes it available any place any time, new work and social spaces that are, in fact, evolving as important learning spaces (TechShop, Meetups, hackathons, community labs).

We are moving away from the model in which learning is organized around stable, usually hierarchical institutions (schools, colleges, universities) that, for better and worse, have served as the main gateways to education and social mobility. Replacing that model is a new system in which learning is best conceived of as a flow, where learning resources are not scarce but widely available, opportunities for learning are abundant, and learners increasingly have the ability to autonomously dip into and out of continuous learning flows.

Instead of worrying about how to distribute scarce educational resources, the challenge we need to start grappling with in the era of socialstructed learning is how to attract people to dip into the rapidly growing flow of learning resources and how to do this equitably, in order to create more opportunities for a better life for more people.

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67 Comments

  • Kadir Arican

    As stated by Alicia Sanders 'education' does bring forward many uncertainties, and may seem like a waste of time, money and effort to some. Yet, as Dave Ross states, it does only satisfy momentary curiosity. As appealing as many of the arguments, references and ideas stated in both the article and comments are, education is not about reaching a destination, but rather the journey. Alicia, one may not get the job originally intended , yet as is with many other things in life, the educational process is a means to building character and developing ones mind to think and respond to the real world. Personal experience dictates this very strongly. Graduating VCE (Victoria, Australia's final year of high school) just a few months ago, i can easily say that i develops as a person in many ways that would of only been possible through 'education'. My reasoning to such a misconception the the educational system is simple; it's gone from being treated as a foundational tool, but rather a game.

  • Alicia Sanders

    We used to think that going to the college helps to answer many of those questions above, but now it is not. Now, once we graduate we understand that we actually have been more questions hanging in the air: what should be if we can’t find a job (unfortunately, it is very common for the US)? How should we handle our student loan? And what was the point of spending four years studying hard and writing all those papers (http://myessayservice.com/ -get homework help here) if I cannot find a job? Sadly, but no one knows the answers. Even you don’t…The future is so undefined

  • Alicia Sanders

    We used to think that going to the college helps to answer many of those questions above, but now it is not. Now, once we graduate we understand that we actually have been more questions hanging in the air: what should be if we can’t find a job (unfortunately, it is very common for the US)? How should we handle our student loan? And what was the point of spending four years studying hard and writing all those papers (<a href="http://myessayservice.com/">get homework help here</a>) if I cannot find a job? Sadly, but no one knows the answers. Even you don’t…The future is so undefined

  • It seems to me that much of what is described here as "learning" is really just about accessing information at a point in time. For example, finding out what tree a leaf belongs to may satisfy a momentary curiosity, but is unlikely to lead to an individual developing the capacity to independently identify which leaves belong to which trees based on common identification factors (e.g., is it a simple or compound leaf, a scale-like leaf, or a needle). Providing this type of systematic structure is what education and learning are really about - understanding topics at depth and systematically, developing building block in your long-term memory.

  • It seems to me that much of what is described here as "learning" is really just about accessing information at a point in time. For example, finding out what tree a leaf belongs to may satisfy a momentary curiosity, but is unlikely to lead to an individual developing the capacity to independently identify which leaves belong to which trees based on common identification factors (e.g., is it a simple or compound leaf, a scale-like leaf, or a needle). Providing this type of systematic structure is what learning is really about - understanding topics at depth and systematically, developing building block in your long-term memory.

  • paul moss

    Some wonderful insights into the future of education. I guess there is one consideration that ought to be discussed. Essentially what this article describes as learning is the true natural form of constructivism, learning that every child engages in every day of their life - until they get to school. School exudes enormous power over the epistemology of learning because of standardised testing - which exists to satisfy a hierarchical society. With all the progressive discussions about improving and revolutionising education, until the societal addiction to social hierarchy disappears, then the status quo will remain - constructivism stops when a child enters school. 

  • Grant Lichtman

    Marina,

    Thanks for this insightful article; I am ordering your book today.  I am involved in transforming K-12 education and my work with many educators brings me to much the same conclusion. Learning is becoming an ecosystem that is driven very differently than the current assembly line model. I have called the evolving global neural network that now creates and manages knowledge the "cognitosphere" for lack of a better word.  I have also explored the development of flow structures per the Constructal Law of Adrian Bejan from Duke into my ideas of how schools and school-like structures are evolving, or must evolve, to maintain relevancy.  My thoughts are at http://learningpond.wordpress.... and my short TEDx talk this last spring.  Thanks again for your work; I shall enjoy your book and am sure cite it in the book I am now working on!

    Regards to Palo Alto; I grew up there WAY before real estate values became what they are today!

  • EyeQuant

    Advances in research and learning should, at the end of the day, come from a deeply grounded source - people and institutions that are involved at very in-depth levels in the research and study they are conducting. The over-arching theme in today's educational systems seems to veer toward a shallower, more flippant learning environment. Sure, education has to leave the University lecture hall, but it must also remain grounded and reputable. For keen learners to continue their education, they must seek out groups, meet-ups, exhibitions, lectures, seminars, and conferences attended by people with more than a Wikipedia-level understanding of the ideas at hand.

  • Tim Gieseke

    Very nice thinking - to be able to antiquate MOOCs before most people are aware of it.

  • Abigail Rudner

    I make my living by teaching people things I learned a day or too before online. I am often surprised that others need my help, but grateful for my ability to find information, learn it quickly and then share it with others....

  • cirsqutri

    Anything to get kids out of the chair and into their world! Great Article!

  • Jessie Chuang

    Exactly what we are thinking here - One Classroom, Play and Learn - http://classroom-aid.com/
    Traditional perspectives about teachers, classrooms and learning are shifting. There is Only One Classroom in The World. In this connected world, we are learners, we are teachers, we are pilgrims on the way.

  • Arup Bhanja

    Agreed that MOOC is rudimentary now ... but with Smartphones and Social Media this will change rapidly. The biggest challenge would be to include a large no. of people into this wider revolution of education and to get Govt. or Corporate sector to understand its value and regard it thus and if reqd. fund its activites. Great article.

  • ll_overi

    As much as I would love to embrace the concept of the world as my class, there are many for whom this class will never be their world.  When we speak of the "small village" that technology creates, we need to be mindful of the large classes that "global" technology excludes. As those of us with the affordances strike heroically out into the brave new world of "socialstructed" knowledge, it is a small kindness to remember those for whom social structures delimit the possible.

  • Chris Scutt

     Over the last four years, I have been living in Malawi and have launched a small project called the Malawi Learning Partnership to start to connect up schools and communities and give them access to electronic learning material even if they can't afford internet through partnership. I agree that there are many who cannot afford the technology to strike out into social structured knowledge but then again, perhaps those of us who have could do a lot more to bridge the divide and start to help bring such opportunities to the rest of our global society.

    I have worked with a number of students and teachers so far. The students are desperate to learn how to use a computer and when they do, they start to teach themselves other things within an extremely short period of time. Just because people live in rural villages doesn't mean they don't have the capacity to learn in this way and in a society where schools are massively overcrowded and teachers underpaid, providing learning hubs for students to explore learning for themselves seems to me to be the obvious way forward.

    Sadly, If I was rich and didn't have to work full time, I'd dedicate my life to developing such learning networks but I am not. I am a qualified teacher and therefore in no way want to belittle the importance of the role of a teacher in helping young people learn but if young people in countries like Malawi are to become tomorrows future leaders and shakers, it is the duty of the rest of the world to provide the right tools and then empower people wherever they live or whatever background they might come from. In my experience, we will be extremely surprised at the impact of providing technology tools to create micro learning moments. After all, it doesn't take long for the number of micro moments to add up into a significant body of knowledge and expertise.

    I agree that the world is the classroom of the future and that we need to help those who actually live their to turn their back yard into that learning environment for the changing of nations. In my view, there are very few things that are more valuable and worth investing in than providing educational opportunities for young people.

  • Abigail Rudner

     You are so right. This is why there will never be a replacement for human to human contact. It is essential...

  • Roytwilliams

    LL_overi, having worked extensively in international development, in actual villages, I am reminded of two things: 

    1. In 2003, we were walking along a narrow ridge, high above the valleys (on both sides), on our way to a pair of villages in Northern Nepal called Raja and Rani (where quite different languages were spoken - we needed translators for a joint project meeting) ... and ... we passed a small house, on the right of the path, which our hosts pointed out to us was the local email 'shop' - it was the only place for miles around that had email, and only intermittently, but it worked. 

    2. One of Sugata Mitra's earliest Hole in the Wall installations was not connected to the internet (it was not possible at the time and place) but he had set up a 'simulated' internet presence on the hard drive, so it had quite a variety of stuff on it.  

    I know its quite a business joining these kinds of dots, but it is possible to make a start ... 

  • Shakti

    I agree with what you have wrote. There is always the possibility, even on Wiki, in which the information is incorrect. So, the Internet is not only a source of information but also disinformation, and how is one to know?