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2013 Winter Issue 2 (January 25, 2013)

The Wolves Are Coming...

January 26, 2013
By Stuart Urback

A war cry is a rather exciting thing.  I think that as a people, Americans tend to enjoy them.  We love half-time speeches, come-from-behind rallying cries, and pretty much anything that implies that we are about to make a major comeback.  But rallying cries can easily turn into needlessly crying wolf.  So I have been careful, because I don’t want to cry wolf, but I don’t think I can hold my tongue anymore.

Education, it seems, is the next big target for “disruption” and “innovation” from the tech industry.  Education, the pundits argue, is backwards, behind the times, and inefficient.  They’re waiting for the next “Facebook story” that will revolutionize this “archaic” institution.  

And the educational institutions, for their part, have seemed rather unperturbed by this idea.  Education is prepared to weather this storm with its broad shoulders and strong intellectual foundations.  But it’s difficult to weather a storm when you’re already underwater.

Institutions are formed because of a necessity to protect and maintain sets of practices and knowledge in the face of cost and danger.  This made sense in a world where the transference of knowledge itself was incredibly costly and dangerous.  Before the Internet existed, the mere notion of transferring sets of ideas from one community to another was laborious and fraught with peril.  Educational institutions existed to take the risk of maintaining and creating knowledge for the rest of the world.  Teaching was sacred because the transference of knowledge came with a significant monetary cost.

But that world doesn’t exist anymore, and educational institutions need to come to terms with it. Education is no longer the “protector” of information. It can’t be.  Emerson saw this coming nearly 150 years ago when he proclaimed that scholars couldn’t be individuals simply willing to pass on old information; he argued that they had to be leaders, searching for truth and beauty even when that search wasn’t popular.

Education is already behind.  Efficient teaching used to be the financial argument that educational institutions used to justify themselves.  I think most teachers would recognize that this wasn’t why they taught, but it was a good argument.  But if institutions keep using teaching efficiency as a measure of success, they will rapidly lose relevance to the disruptors, who can develop programs to efficiently teach people.  

Institutions could find the smartest teachers, teach the awesomest courses, and even give away iPads at every class and they would still lose.  If the fight is about who has better courses, tests, material, or extracurricular tie-ins, educational institutions will lose.  Period.

I’m willing to bet a very pretty penny that there are ten year-olds who have made broader theoretical impacts on their communities than some academics have in this country.  If this is true, it belies a stark reality: the Internet can more efficiently spread, intertwine, and create new ideas than an educational institution ever could.

But education can do something better.  It can make connections, behave flexibly, and, yes, actually out-innovate Internet-based learning.  Learning about trends in successful innovation, it becomes clear that location is incredibly important.  Bringing groups of like-minded, committed, and intelligent people together in a single location creates massive outpourings of positive creativity and change.  

Institutions should try to take as much advantage of this as possible, not just because it’s something they can do better, but also because it’s something that will (shockingly enough) also deepen educational experiences. Instead of funneling students into classes, they should be guided (in the way that only an intelligent and experienced body of administrators, faculty, and staff can do) into creating, organizing, and innovating a wide range of ideas.

Within this really special space, failure becomes a potent learning experience on which new ideas, identities, and relationships are formed.  Institutions can’t just paste technology into classrooms and call it a success; they must re-evaluate the basic principles that technology challenges.  Education morphing from an exploration of values and consciousness into a race to see who can accrue more titles and skills would be a nightmare. It would deprive our world of insightful individuals who can effectively solve problems and defend the rights of their fellow citizens.

Or can institutions use the wave of disruption to innovate again, to deconstruct the student-teacher binary, to give students the opportunity to truly experiment and explore without the confines of “courses” with imaginary mandates and responsibilities?  Institutions should allow students to take control of their time and lead their own experiences and projects while providing tools for innovation and creativity, like an experienced and wise faculty.  If institutions did this, I say bring on the disruption.

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