Sunday, October 04, 2009

Some thoughts on redesigning education

Some time back I read a blog post on redesigning education. It asked some very good questions. Stuff which I had been thinking of myself. I left my thoughts on the blog, but I would also like to start a conversation around these ideas with those who read this blog as well.

I would like to know what other people think of the issue of redesigning (college) education.

I have often thought about how college education can be improved. To answer this question, we first have to ask a very basic question. What is the purpose of education?

To me, we need education for 3 things:

  1. To learn more about the world around us
  2. To lead positive constructive lives
  3. To earn a good living / fulfill our ambitions

I think education has to a large extent evolved to fulfill #3 (with a bias towards earning a comfortable living). The semester system, along with multiple choice tests, and grading, has made our education system into an assembly line. Students are pushed into the assembly line, given classes, administered tests, branded with a grade and pushed out of the assembly line, into the workforce.

Even though this is not the best way to teach, this system has for the most part worked till now. I think there are several reasons.

1. For many of students, getting an education is simply a means to gain employable skills (I do not say this in a negative way).
2. A university has to provide these skills in a time and cost efficient way to the students. It has to provide some branding which will be valuable to students, and make it easy for employers to spot the talent they want to recruit.

In the last few years I have taught programming classes at a local college. In one semester, I tried to move away from the regular grading mechanism. I wanted to focus on deep learning of programming skills, sharing and brainstorming ideas, code reviews, collaborating with the community of practice, etc. However, students still needed to be graded, so I had to come up with a way to fulfill that requirement also. Without going into details I will simply say, in that semester, I put in an effort which was orders of magnitude greater than the regular effort (because I had to fulfill the grading requirement). Students learned a lot in that semester, and I too enjoyed running that course, but towards the end of the semester, I was tremendously stressed out managing the course, and my regular programming work.

So even though the current education system is sub-optimal, I do not think it is because of evil intentions. It is possibly the most practical mechanism that has emerged over time.

However, many things have changed in the past few decades. The shelf life of knowledge has greatly reduced. The Internet has made it possible to share information, and collaborate with people at a distance. Many businesses have started valuing knowledge over degrees (this is at least true in software, and probably in media, advertising, etc as well). The read-write web has made it possible for students to easily create a digital portfolio, and to establish alternate credentials. So all the things a student needs for learning (information, interactions, guidance, review and feedback, and credentials) can be put together in a non traditional way. I stress so much on non traditional because the traditional education system excludes many learners, and this I feel can be changed.

So here is the ideal education system according to me:

A student enters the education system with some goals, and connects with mentors who will help her in fulfilling those goals. These mentors may be traditional teachers who work for a university, or may be employees of an organization, senior practitioners who choose to help on the Internet, friends, family, or people who have retired from the workforce, but would like to share their wisdom and help others.

With the help of mentors, the student defines learning goals, and identifies resources. These resources could be traditional classes, books, or digital material (videos, text, audio...).

With these materials and a micro mentor network, the student begins her learning process. When they have questions, there are a several resources from their mentor network they can turn to. These students may be part of a traditional classroom in some cases, whereas in other cases they may be part of a local or virtual study group. Think of it as being part of an appropriate group for every course they want to take. There are several tools, both real world as well as digital to enable this.

As the student learns, they leave a digital learning trail. One possible way is using blogs, audio recordings, wikis, contributions on forums, and other digital artifacts. So students blog their assignments and problem sets. They participate on Internet forums asking and answering questions. They may create a podcast (or screencasts) of their assignments and presentations. Maybe some students will be able to do practical work which is similar in nature to the assignments and problem sets.

Senior practitioners, traditional teachers, mentors from the community, help the student understand the strengths and weaknesses in their knowledge. The student subsequently fills in the holes by seeking help from their mentor network, and by revisiting those concepts. Community members endorse a students' understanding of their topic of study. Maybe tests still have a place... I don't know...

When a student knows enough, they can enter the workforce. Proof of their knowledge already exists on the Internet. Some organizations may accept them purely based on their digital portfolio and an interview, while others may expect them to take some tests. Students can prepare for these tests, if they wish to work for that organization.

Students however, do not stop their education after getting employed. The process outlined above continues, but perhaps at a slower pace. Thus even after starting work a person continues to accumulate (non credit) credentials. These credentials may either be continuing education certificates from a university or Internet endorsements from the community of practice.

This to me is the ideal educational scenario. But it will not be without problems.

There will always be the issue of credibility of an online portfolio, and endorsements from random mentors. Is there a process using which we can streamline online credentials and validate the credibility???

There will be issues with self-discipline. College gives a certain structure. Doing it by oneself needs a lot of will-power and discipline. One can easily while away time, thinking they are learning something. Maybe the Pomodoro technique can help here.

But I think this scenario is workable. I like it because it allows students to learn at their own pace (without excluding students who do not have resources to attend traditional colleges), from many mentors, thus gaining knowledge and wisdom from many sources. But most importantly, it allows students to take control of their education, and seek out the best, albeit disparate sources for knowledge.

Here's my own humble effort towards contributing towards this goal -