One must question whether the education system will keep pace to equip today's students with the skillset and tools to live and thrive in an increasingly complex society.
Education is at the core of a good and prosperous life. It allows humans to develop lifelong skills and the critical thinking required for autonomy, find meaning in their lives, and propel themselves out of poor economic conditions.
Given how critical education is for human prosperity, it is essential to note that modern education has not seen comparable progress relative to other industries - such as finance, transportation, and manufacturing - over the same period.
Improvements have been made by introducing technology and alternative learning formats (e.g. flipped classrooms), but education's core issues still need to be addressed. With this in mind, one must question whether the education system will keep pace to equip today's students with the skillset and tools to live and thrive in an increasingly complex society.
The Good and the Bad
With the dawn of the digital age, advancements have been made to provide a more comprehensive learning experience in education. These advancements, by in large, have been enabled by introducing various technologies in the classroom.
We'll outline three significant technologies that have helped us develop the educational experience our students receive today and three fundamental issues that persist in today's education system.
1. Massive Online Open Courses
Various learning platforms deliver Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) to provide learning content online to anyone who wants to take a course with no limitations on class size, attendance, or schedule. Examples of prominent MOOCs in North America are Coursera, edX, and Udacity.
Compared to courses offered at formal educational institutions, MOOCs are highly affordable, thereby increasing access to quality education for all.
While MOOCs are not a replacement for traditional education, MOOCs offer an in-demand alternative that provides options for convenience and accessibility.
Large companies like Apple and Google have recently dropped their degree requirements for many positions. This move by Big Tech reinforces the notion that you don't have to go to an accredited school to be successful.
As the quality of MOOCs continues to develop, we may reach the point where it challenges traditional educational institutions. Once the quality reaches parity with traditional education, this will pressure the traditional institutions to halt or even lower their rapidly increasing tuition fees, as individuals will be able to obtain similar credentials and qualifications at a fraction of the cost.
Another benefit of MOOCs is that they are self-paced; this opens the window of opportunity for people like:
- the late-shift worker
- the busy mother
- a student transitioning degrees
These are examples of people who cannot afford to go back to school - whether for financial reasons or other obligations - who now can pursue learning without the constraints of having to pay a large sum of money or attend class at a fixed time.
Being able to study at your own pace also promotes the notion of mastery; rather than being rushed to keep up with the collective comprehension in a traditional class, you have the freedom to dive into the contents of the course at a level that enables mastery.
Fosters Growth Mindset & Lifelong Learning
Do you want to increase your salary potential and gain skills to obtain a management role at work? Are you in a career that turned out isn't for you? Or do you have a curious mind and want to know more about history, computer programming, or math? All of these opportunities are now available through enrolment in a MOOC.
Learning does not stop once you've received your degree; learning is something one should pursue throughout life. By offering learning alternatives to a formal degree, MOOCs allow individuals to foster a growth mindset and continue learning at any stage of their life and personal development.
2. Learning Management Systems
A Learning Management System (LMS) is a software application that enables users to create, design, and deliver course content through a website or a mobile app.
Most high schools and universities have adopted an LMS, allowing teachers to distribute their course content and students to submit their questions and assignments. Examples of LMS' include Canvas and D2L.
LMS' make it a seamless experience for instructors to distribute course content, assessments, and additional learning resources. There is also a standardized format for students to view and submit assignments.
LMS' also provide a selection of tools that enhance communication between teachers and students. Forums can facilitate class discussions, address common questions, and brainstorm ideas.
Teachers can also dispatch announcements that can be immediately received by their students, considering the LMS is often linked to the school's email system.
When COVID-19 hit Canada and the United States in March 2020, schools had to transition to online learning quickly. The LMS provided teachers an effective way to host their content, lessons, and other communications virtually.
Since the lockdowns and restrictions have dropped, students and teachers can now communicate in person. However, we've now seen the functionality of the LMS stress-tested, and the LMS' have shown that they are a powerful tool for in-person and virtual facilitation.
3. In-class Devices
Over the last decade, more and more school districts have been providing loaner tablets for students to use, even in K-12.
In a world where digitization will only grow, it is crucial to teach students of all ages how different technologies can benefit their learning and personal development.
We all know how compelling our devices can be. In the classroom, students can use them for tremendous good.
In-class devices provide a medium for better engagement, such as tutorial videos, interactive games, and other multimedia resources.
These new formats can significantly enhance the student's learning experience and equip the teacher with additional ways to communicate the lesson.
In-class devices open up the opportunity for various forms of collaboration. Now that everyone has a device, teachers can run multiple activities to stimulate cooperation between a student and their peers; this can be in the form of polls, group case studies, readings, or a good ol' Kahoot!
Utilizing digital tablets in class enables students to work anywhere they want to while carrying minimal physical materials, whether at home, school, coffee shop, or library. A tablet also allows students to access all their textbooks simultaneously in digital format.
Despite the efforts to introduce various technology into the classroom and the benefits they've brought, these advancements have failed to address three fundamental flaws in our education system.
1. Passive Learning
One major issue with the current education system is that most classrooms and schools follow a lecture-style format, where a teacher spends class time introducing a topic rather than actively engaging the students.
The problem with this approach is it is limiting, unengaging, and inefficient.
Conducting class time in this manner means that students cannot get ahead because new information is only introduced during class at the teacher's discretion.
Questions from the students are also limited because they may need more time beyond the class to develop well-thought-out questions.
What's a better outcome?
Ideally, the teacher should post lessons ahead of time so students can study a new concept at home and bring their questions into the class the next day (i.e. The Flipped Classroom).
This way, class time is anchored around the most pressing issues, students have more flexibility in studying the new material, and it encourages students to be more engaged with their studies.
In the Flipped Classroom, students follow their own learning paths and have the support of their teachers and peers when they are behind or stuck on a particular topic.
With this in mind, it is essential to highlight the limitations of expanding this approach.
The Flipped Classroom can be hard to implement because it puts the onus on the student to come to class prepared, and the teacher has to be prepared to have an open-ended discussion around the topic rather than going through a scripted lesson.
School administrations must provide better systems to support teachers interested in adopting this approach in their classes.
2. Impersonal Learning
A classroom typically consists of a single teacher and many students. These students will have different abilities, interests, and backgrounds. Despite their differences, students are forced to progress through the course material in unison.
For example, Student A could achieve 95% on the test, and Student B could get a mark of 60%. Both students received a "passing" grade, and now - despite the varying grades - they have to move on to the next topic without being given a chance to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
This dynamic is analogous to building a tower on a rocky foundation; if the foundation is not set, it becomes increasingly challenging to produce something fruitful from the structure.
What's a better outcome?
A better system would enable students to start learning through their own tailored path and have the teacher take on a role closer to a mentor or coach than the traditional instructor's role.
Until more significant intervention is required from the teacher, technology should enable students to rely on their peers and their own curated learning path to guide their development.
One of the causes of this classroom dynamic is because of the teacher-to-student ratio; teachers have to keep a large class of students aligned on a single curriculum.
In the current system, a teacher can't scale their attention to the individual needs of every student because that is too much work for one person.
3. Emphasis on Marks over Mastery
The education system tends to emphasize marks over mastery. The previous two "cons" are caused by functional limitations, whereas this flaw is rooted in cultural values and arguably innate human behaviour.
The following example demonstrates this issue: Let's say I have a physics test one week away. In the past, I waited for the last day to study; I could cram and still get a good mark, so cramming became a repetitive pattern I always fell back on.
One factor that enforces this behaviour is that our education system - and society as a whole - only care about marks. We use marks as a proxy for intelligence and comprehension. Unfortunately, students can game the current system to achieve a high mark without a solid understanding of the tested material.
Generally, a proxy is a figure used to represent a value in a calculation. In this specific case, the proxy is the test score, which we use to determine a student's subject matter expertise. The problem arises when the proxy loses its integrity to correctly represent what you're trying to measure. In our case, the way we've structured the learning cycle (lecture → homework → test) can be gamed so that a student can achieve a high test score without necessarily understanding the content.
The cycle we follow to introduce a new topic and then test the student's comprehension is what incentivizes the overemphasis on marks. Students quickly learn that they can skip lectures and the suggested homework and instead cram for an exam and still get a good mark without necessarily grasping the first principles of the subject.
The core issue here is that the current system incentivizes poor study habits and short-term thinking and ultimately takes the focus away from maximizing a student's ability to master a subject.
What's a better outcome?
It might be unreasonable to expect to change behaviour deeply rooted in human nature or cultural values. Behaviours are often moulded early in a process and are incredibly difficult to break once established within a system.
Instead, exploring ways to incentivize students to develop strong study habits by creating incentives that override the current incentives rather than undo them is worthwhile.
One way to realign incentives toward something of value is to create tailored learning paths that encourage students to pursue learning on their own accord and desire because they find the experience enjoyable and meaningful rather than the superficial purpose of achieving a high test score.
To make progress, you have to set a goal. When you select a goal, you have to create a way to measure your progress. We use tests in school to measure a student's understanding of a subject.
The problem arises when we overemphasize the marks and promote bad practices that harm the student's development, such as anxiety over grades, cramming for tests, and cheating. The education system should be realigned to measure a student's true comprehension to overcome this limitation.
One way the system can achieve this is to reallocate weights on assessments; instead of having a couple of heavily-weighted exams a couple of times per term, grades should be spread out throughout the term so that students are incentivized to be engaged in their studies throughout the term.
Our current education system is defined by the Prussian education model, which started with educational reforms in the late 18th and early 19th century, and has since had widespread influence. We have come a long way since then; new technologies have enabled novel ways to support teachers and students alike. However, many core issues from the 18th-century model are still ever-so-present.
With the coming digital age, we have seen technological innovations that have impacted society and our way of life. While these changes have mainly been positive, the environment in which we live will only continue to grow in complexity. So we must ensure that our education system is progressing at a rate that can keep up with the rest of society and equip future generations with the skills and toolset to live and thrive.
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