Sunday, 3 October 2010

An ideal education: My thoughts

It’s very much a time to look at existing ways of doing things and reinvent them with all our new knowledge, tools and skills.

The essence of education is, I feel, a service that changes the way you think. As you become more educated you see the world differently than before, your mind is opened. You can do things and see things that you couldn’t before. Well, why don’t I hear lots of talk about improving the fundamental metric behind this. The speed that you can educate someone. The speed at which they can do and see new things.

I see a future where learning is free. Basic content and learning systems are free and open. Openlearn is a good example. So there are no barriers to you just diving into a topic and beginning your learning journey.

If you want/need to learn faster then you pay. The faster you want to learn the more you pay. I get that this puts up a barrier but I see this as a natural part of the way the world works and should work. Developing tools and services to speed learning is very costly. You need to recoup the costs and turn a profit. Over time the tools become standardised and cheaper and thus open to more and more people. Eventually they’re free. In the meantime there are models of funding, such as grants, available that could be used to connect those without the means to pay for the premium fast learning and enable everyone an opportunity to access premium services and institutions to make a profit.

This type of model is already being used to great effect in many of the newer online games. Farmville has attracted 80 million users by blending a free to enter game with tools and products you can buy to enhance the experience further. Most of these ‘addons’ are relatively cheap and allow you to choose where to spend your money.

In education what should underpin this is a science of human performance. I envisage real and virtual laboratories where the underlying facts of how humans learn are studied and shared along with how to apply this in the real world to help students and everyone involved in learning.

We need to be focusing on improving the speed and quality of getting information and concepts into peoples heads. At the same time we need to help them express this new found knowledge better. We respect and hire people not because of what they know but what they can express and apply.

Unfortunately I don’t see much money being spent on this type of research compared to most other areas. Yet I see this has one of the widest levels of application. There are 6 billion people that can benefit from this knowledge and it’s not hard to show that the world economy would greatly benefit from a more educated population. In short we’ll benefit very quickly so the return on investment would be high.

Exams and interviews are two key methods used to assess knowledge yet I also see little scientific and systematic education on how to to master either. I see bits of exam practice on courses but I don’t see a systematic application of principles designed to help students consistently apply the knowledge they’ve gained to a high standard in practice.

By this I mean that exams should be getting consistently harder to pass yet the pass rate should be about the same each year. This should be achieved because the tools and support available is getting better. Students should be finding it easier and easier to grasp complex and challenging concepts faster, in more detail and should be getting better and better at applying and expressing this knowledge or skill in more contexts and scenarios. Year on year.

Education providers should be competing on how difficult their exams are whilst maintaining consist pass rates and minimising barriers to learning. That to me is how you create an open competitive market where students can see value for money. They can compare their investment of time, money and effort with the return they get in knowledge, skills and qualifications.

To be honest I don’t like the concept of a failure rate. If I paid for learning and I put the effort in then I should pass. Otherwise I’ll go to another provider who can teach me better. Maybe I’m talking about it being an acceptable failure rate. Students don’t pass the exam but they can retake it whenever they like. They can also buy further services if they like, to help them pass.

I also wonder whether it should just be a pass or failure. We have the technology for better granularity these days. You should pass on your strengths and then only have to retake exams on you weaknesses. I just see it as wasteful to only pass or fail an entire course. I don’t see how that helps anyone.

In terms of applying this in the real world I also expect an institution to be using it’s own learning service to educate its staff. If they aren’t then it can’t be very good. I expect newer features to be developed in house and trialled on staff and student cohorts in a beta and alpha fashion.

What I mean is that as part of the staffs day or week they should be undertaking courses. Each institution should be figuring out how to fit learning into the standard working day instead of leaving it as a bolt on to home life. There are methods of achieving a balance between r&d (learning) and delivering a solution (applying that learning). It’s in every learning providers interest to figure out how to fit learning into the busy lives we all lead. The institutions that succeed and do it well will prosper

In summary, I would like an education system that focused on improving the speed and quality of learning while also simplifying its provision. Making it easier to fit in our busy lives. One where the experience of learning gets more enjoyable and satisfying year on year yet the quality and depth of my understanding is greater. A students ability to express and apply this knowledge is also improving every year so the time and effort it takes them to go from being introduced to some knowledge and then having a firm grasp of it is so much less than it used to be.

This would be a world where the return on investment for education is continually growing. One where the prospects of all individuals who apply themselves to learning are getting better year on year.

These improvements would come about through increased research and focus on human performance. Far more than is currently done. Increasing the shared knowledge on how best to transfer information into humans along with what they need to best share this information with others and apply it in in their lives. This knowledge is then fed into the tools, processes and practices used to learn and teach.

I’m increasingly realising that’s my dream. I’m working on tools and things that can bring this to reality but I’m just one guy with limited time. I really hope that some one out there is pursuing this and making it a reality.
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