In which I hope the messenger will not be killed for rampant and heretical
I will admit… I am a travel addict. I will also admit to being a not particularly choosy one, either, as long as something “new” is involved. New campsite, new country, new mode of transportation… A couple of years ago, on a particularly icy, dreary and claustrophobic February day, I resorted to “traveling” through my first-ring suburb’s alleys. It was a very short journey, distance-wise, and yet I still found new places and unexpected things I hadn’t seen in over ten years in the neighborhood.
My travel bug is subject to various limitations: finances, time, finances, household members’ various needs, finances. But my concept of limitations is very different from those of my parents, who are most comfortable in a group, who depend on a travel agent and Elderhostel to set up structures and handle details. In contrast, we’re “on-line self-service.” Maps, travel descriptions, trail recommendations, flight connections, hostel accommodations… And what we don’t figure out ahead of time, we shrug and assume we can figure it out when we get “there,” or, if we’re feeling very flexible, if we get there.
Travel agents have no idea who we are. But the Kayak search engine gets heavy use, and if there are tickets to be purchased, that’s our gateway.
A quote from David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous, to which I referred briefly in a post last week, sheds some light on the success of travel search engines such as Kayak, Orbitz and Travelocity :
“The miscellanizing of information is giving rise to a new category of business that enhances the value of information developed elsewhere and thus benefits the original creators of that information. Think of it as meta-business. The rise of meta-business reverses the early expectation that the Web would disintermediate business by providing customers with direct access to goods. The web has indeed cut out middlemen who provide no value, but it also provides an opportunity for new information-based businesses to emerge.”
The fragmentation (or miscellanizing) of any number of social and informational elements is a reasonably documentable and widespread concept. I’d suggest this includes education, which, in spite of heavy emotional and financial investments in strapping tape and baling wire, is at least chipping at the edges. But what if the chips were being chunked out of the middle?
What would happen if populations with search skills and individualized expectations (and this seems to be a growing number) were offered a tool similar to a travel search engine for education? What if we took the metaphor of learning as a journey and looked at it through this literal example? What if there were a search engine/business that aggregated and sorted education options with criteria defined by the user?
(This might be related to the concierge model referenced in Friday’s CCK08 Ustream session, but for which I currently can find no citation… Additionally, a range of education scenarios, including some similar to this, have undoubtedly been presented elsewhere. While potentially treading similar waters, I’ll speculate on with colorful detail, anyway.)
Is the stage set?
Certainly there are any number of preconditions that suggest that a user-based education landscape is not so far-fetched. There are now multiple players in on- and offline education; MIT’s and others’ free courses, online schools, for-profit companies offering software or online learning for specific courses, local/neighborhood schools. Choices related to charter schools and open enrollment are now fairly common in the U.S. landscape. Parents and students have always sorted through options and variables for after-school activities and colleges.
What if all of these options were all put into one pot, rather than defined and approached as separate kingdoms?
Let’s say parents, learners, businesses and other entities could search for what they needed and wanted in education based on varying criteria: cost, type of experience, location, amount of service, etc. Aptitude, interest and skill “testing” services would abound. Some parties would be looking for traditional and unified education options, and other learners may seek more flexible, unbundled experiences. Some would be online, others might be available in the local community, some could require travel.
How could such a system be validated? Well, there are also some tools already “out there.” Some are in the form of blunt instruments, such as Rate My Professors .
More sophisticated ones include the recommender systems to which Stephen Downes has frequently referred; learners and interested parties could make their experiences with any given educator or education “service provider” (or educators about students, for that matter) known and thus shape future choices.
Perhaps at the user end, such a system would have transparency because employers, other educators, etc., could judge the quality and content of the education of their future hires or learners by viewing not a grade, but the learners’ work directly, potentially through the use of increasingly common online portfolios or systems such as CompendiumLD.
Old and new problems
The question is, of course, is if this would create a dystopian environment of educational haves and have nots. Particularly, what happens with less motivated or more troubled learners? Could work with such learners in such a disruptive scenario be somehow incentivized? (Private foundations are already working in this area.) And would it be possible to assemble an education deemed inadequate by the hiring market, or “society,” or other “educated people?” This is a risk for the learner and for “society”- but then, these issues, present today as well, could create a demand for educators who can offer guidance about how to sort through the choices (the “concierge,” perhaps).
Yep, it would be a free-for-all… at least for a while. It has often been said that people are unwilling to experiment with education because it involves kids’ lives. And making complex travel arrangements isn’t everyone’s idea of how to go on vacation. Should an Edu-ocity (curiosity+ Travelocity, perhaps?) search engine come into being, one option would be that it would mutually co-exist, or perhaps simply point to, traditional education systems for those desiring or needing them.
Additionally, this concept potentially abandons, or releases, education to the free market, and this is a Very Disturbing Idea to some… perhaps even viewed as potentially unethical or amoral by abandoning current social norms and perceived protections. The questions are many, and picket lines and mobs with pitchforks and torches are forming as I type. At the very least, to ensure equal access and resources in such a re-visioning would require that the role of government and the system of educational financing be massively overhauled. And I’m still waiting for the Easter Bunny.
(To reiterate: I’m speculating on a possible scenario. I can’t claim that it is a probable or preferable one. And while I started to sort out the issues above with several pages of virtual ink, my pointy little head does not fit well into a policy wonk hat at the moment. So for the purposes of getting to the point of this post, I’m going to ignore them. So there.)
Climate of innovation, complexity and chaos for “educators”
The creation of a sophisticated education search engine could create a climate for increased innovation; educational forms no one has ever heard of might appear. Would all innovations be “good,” healthy or successful? Certainly not. Would some be an improvement on some current situations? Maybe.
And as far as educators are concerned, they have already been variously identified as Curators, Guides, Concierges, Modelers, Network Administrators… all, as George Siemens noted, are about shifting the control to the learner. Ultimately, the point of speculating about an Edu-ocity search engine here is to more clearly picture the forces that may play into this shift.
Potentially, the Edu-ocity idea might blow the doors off the “educator” box by allowing or even encouraging community experts or others to offer and facilitate learning experiences. Within the search environment, learners could “meet their match,” be it content knowledge, a personalized learning experience, other learners/peers, tutoring, daycare, ideology, stand-alone software, a community environment, etc. These choices could even be available to parents seeking options for the smallest of learners.
What about academic “standards” currently enforced by educators and educational instutitions? Well, Edu-ocity options might imply that such standards would simply be ignored or bypassed, if there are individuals or groups who are willing to create learning services or opportunities based on non-standardized criteria. (I can hear the screams of outrage in my living room already.) Maybe you currently “need” high school to get into college… but what happens if there’s no clear dividing line between the two, and learners are accepted into other education experiences by showing work, rather than waving a diploma? And maybe the sharp divisions between learning and work would become very, very blurry.
It’ll never happen; what’s the point?
I’m not invested in whether my speculations are correct or viable. Maybe the Edu-ocity option is as far away as Iceland (farther for some than others, I would note); maybe it’s right in the neighborhood. I simply would say that, if not this disruption or shift, then a different one.
Questions being asked about the changing roles of educators are sometimes phrased and answered in a way that assumes that role changes will be based on the trained educator’s and/or institution’s and/or government’s deliberate and rational choices, and that existing education entities will swing or trend in one direction or another as a whole.
I’ve begun to wonder if these assumptions leave us all sitting at home looking at the same walls, rather than preparing us for world travel. We have a view of education as a consensual public good, in which specifically trained or approved authorities make choices about how it should play out. But what if something happened that removed the mechanisms of value measurement and simply bypassed current authorities?
What if the educators’ roles were to be defined — and redefined — by the learners?