A Possible Future for Higher Education

Posted by Science Explored on September 13, 2012

Today we had the chance to join Troy Williams, Vice President and General Manager of Macmillian New Ventures and adjunct professor at NYU for a talk on “From Print to Personalized Learning.”  Though Williams focused his discussion on innovations and transformations in higher education, it’s always interesting to hear what might be coming down the pipeline into K-12 education.

Williams humbly broached the topic of “how collegiate education will change” by stating that he is wrong.  Wrong?  I was under the impression he was an expert in the field of technological education reform.  When he elaborated that his sincere hope was that he is simply, less wrong than others in his field, I understood his position.  Williams is a futurist and his business is inherently uncertain as it is based in predictive models and trends – he cannot be sure of what is going to happen, but he can make educated forecasts. 

The foundation of his lecture was based on four trends he saw in education:

  1. There are 7.2 million teachers today (many more if you count mentors, coaches, parents, etc.) that represent 8.7% of national GDP when you consider all the facilities, materials, and personnel involved in education. 
  2. Demand for education is increasing and a means by which to deliver it inexpensively and quickly is necessary.
  3. Social Security is contending with worker wage garnishing that channels money to unpaid loan debts rather than to its dependents.
  4. As a result, administrators will make decisions rather than faculty based on performance data, professor efficacy, and finances.

Based on these trends, Williams has three predictions:

  1.  As a result, administrators will make decisions rather than faculty based on performance data, professor efficacy, and finances.
  2. This means that students, for example, will not be asked to jump through a litany of proverbial “flaming hoops” but rather demonstrate their ability to perform on a task.  Similarly, employers might ask a prospective employee to demonstrate his or her knowledge (e.g. a case study interview) rather than earn a position based on what you have on your resume.
  3. Both content and the method of delivery of content will be personalized for each student.

Education is going to take a long time to shift.  It will take even longer for K-12 to fall in line with what universities are doing if it ever does at all.  Williams did recognize that school is an inherently different beast from college – his predictions, he conceded; hold less water for what may happen in elementary and secondary education.  Still, curiosity peaked, and I had to wonder:  what would this brave new world of higher education look like?  Williams was ready with an answer.

Learning objects – they are the “classrooms” of the William’s future.  He explained that learning objects are a fusion of videos, interactive simulations, and other media that would address every single element that needed to be learned in a college course.  These learning objects would be “atomized,” meaning they would be broken down into specific sub-elements so that a student’s misunderstanding could be readily pinpointed.  The sense was that the classroom of the future is strikingly independent and very computer-reliant.  Williams added that sophisticated mathematical models would compute what a student’s likely misunderstanding was within a learning object based by assessing the student continuously and predictively changing the content the student was presented with based on those misunderstandings.  If a student continues to underperform, the system would then direct the student to a real professor for one-on-one instruction.

William’s vision is interesting to contemplate.  It would save money because college campuses could be very small meaning less taxpayer money goes to funding large state schools, less professors would be needed, and degrees could be awarded faster while incurring less debt (if any) on the student.  A powerful draw of the William’s scenario is that is would also permit many more people to access higher education while shifting education and the working world from an entitlement system (it wouldn’t matter where you got your degree from but that you proved you had the knowledge and ability) to a meritocracy.  Who knows though – Williams just hopes he is less wrong, after all. 

What would personalized learning look like in K-12 education?