The next big hack – university education

Universities don’t like being considered businesses, but they are, like it or not. Even the public ones. And the global higher education market is non-trivial, being one of the largest market sectors in the global economy.

There have been attempts to hack this market before,  and some of them are doing quite well. But they are largely incremental hacks, e-learning, MOOCs, open educational resources, Khan Academy’s blend of content and data. None of them are really disruptive.

There are several parts to higher education that makes it hard to disrupt:

  • regulations and accreditation requirements;
  • public  systems that have expectations of institutional ‘performance’ for public universities;
  • long traditions based on a particular industrial age model that creates considerable inertia;
  • management systems that devolve considerable decision-making power to the academic staff (even in managerialist institutions);
  • social and cultural beliefs about the fixed and immutable nature of ‘the university’.

Most so-called disruptions have been incremental. Most e-learning simply throws technology at educational worst practice, with some exceptions. MOOCs are fun for some, but they have not really changed higher education in any meaningful way, they are experimental sideshows on the main stage of higher education. The flipped classroom is nothing new, I published on my own flipped classroom experiences (by a different name) that started in the late 80s at the University of the Western Cape. What is new is the ability to tap into data, but those data only provide information that a good teacher would have anyway.

So, higher education has been hacked on the fringes, but there has not been anything truly disruptive in higher education to date. There are two sides to the HEI equation that need to be considered. The learning of theory (or content-based learning), and the learning of practice (doing chemistry, biology, physics, music, art, etc).


Areas of education available for disruption.

Content, and the learning of theory from content, are fairly easy and cheap to disrupt, and there have been some early disruptive influences there, though none of them have been really disruptive despite common rhetoric to the contrary. The fact is that most students, especially those just out of school, need teachers. And teachers don’t scale.

The learning of practice of a discipline has, however, seen even less meaningful disruption. That is because, with the exception of certain areas, you cannot get practice digitally in a meaningful way. And this forces us to stick with the industrial age aggregative model.

Assessment, and ensuring the quality of the assessment is critical to education. Indeed, the quality of assessment always determines the quality of outcomes. Exams are awful for assessing anything, so they produce the worst possible outcomes. Automated assessment can only go so far, and people will always find a way to cheat the system, lowering the value that can be attributed to assessment results.

Then there are credentials. The things that universities provide, and that are generally accepted as being worth something. With current technologies and approaches, they are difficult to make available electronically in a way that allows them to be easily moved between institutions. Also, credentials tend to be all or none, it is difficult to get movable credit for taking three weeks of a 10 week course on something, and move it easily between physical and/or virtual institutions.

However several technologies are on the horizon that could solve this challenge. One is blockchain, the technology that underpins BitCoin and other cryptocurrencies. Basically, any certificate of any type could be inserted into a blockchain in a secure and reliable way, and then made available where it is needed to verify someone’s assertions that they have completed some certified piece of work. That could be a short module, a course, a diploma, a degree, etc. That could allow students to move credits among institutions, and allow them to create their own learning. It could also allow institutions to cross accredit courses and other learning opportunities, and students in programmes in one institution to take courses from another without having a lot of administrative overhead. There are lots of opportunities in certificates via the blockchain.

The MIT Media Lab and the education software company Learning Machine have been working on a collaborative project for issuing official credentials, also known as certificates, onto a blockchain system. The code that they created is open-source, and available to anyone who wants to explore it. So grab it and hack away.

Another technology that is on the cards is artificial intelligence, and this may solve the problem that teachers don’t scale. The real potential for disruption of education, at least of the teaching of theory, will happen when Artificial Intelligence (AI) reaches a point where it can be applied to teaching-and-learning, is able to help build personalised learning for students with different capabilities, and can carry out the assessment tasks that are so difficult to scale when humans are involved. This will happen in the  next 4-10 years. At some point, the AI will understand the content, understand how to teach it, know the student individually, and be able to assess learning in ways that we cannot come close to doing now.

The closed walls that surround Institutions will begin to break down, allowing practical experience to be obtained in multiple ways, and for that experience to be certified, vetted by the AI and stored in the blockchain.

Stuff is happening now. Feel like hacking education? Follow your passion. There is room for many!

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