From education to employment

The Death of the Conventional College

Stefan Drew

When we look around and see the FE landscape it’s easy to think that is the norm and that it will continue in the same way for years.

It will NOT.

Education as we know it will disappear within a few years.

Are these words the ranting of an alarmist…. or the words of a realist?

To decide let’s consider the following.

Education is a global industry. Children and adults in Africa, South America, Asia and beyond are desperate for education. But worldwide there is a shortage of around 18 million teachers. As people become educated and capable of being teachers in these far-flung places, they tend to migrate to the cities, or overseas, for the better life they have learnt about. Home grown teachers aren’t the solution in many countries.

So vast areas of the world are short of educational opportunities. That’s billions of people deprived of education. It’s been estimated that worldwide 23% of children do not attend school. Plus, there are huge numbers of older people who are illiterate and deprived of the opportunity to learn.

Now consider what organisations like Google are doing in education. It goes beyond Google Classroom.

They recognise that teaching requires experts; but believe that the experts are only needed to create teaching materials .. not to teach. They know that a single course can be accessed by millions of people online at negligible cost. To enable this, low orbit satellites are being launched that makes access easy. To Google this makes economic sense as they increase their footprint and opportunity to sell advertising. 

This means that learning is decreasingly about going to a place to learn. It is increasingly about education being beamed into remote homes and villages worldwide. That cannot happen in isolation. As the technology improves it will change the way education is viewed by individuals and governments worldwide. That’s includes in the UK.

Government worldwide are now thinking about how much cheaper and more effective it will be to beam education into homes rather than build schools and colleges.

We can weep and wail and claim we know best, but education is an area where governments know money can be saved. And it will not stop there. There are convincing arguments pointing to the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) based teacherless education will be superior. This has been discussed by political and business leaders at Davos, so is firmly on the agenda.

Google’s View of the Future Education Landscape

Google co-founder, Larry Page, said, “In the future, Google’s software will be able to understand what you are knowledgeable about and what you are not”?

Using that as a starting point, AI will be able to link with the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensors on our phone (or distributed around our homes and workplace), to design the ideal learning programme for each of us. Gone will be long courses. In will be short bites of learning, as and when they are needed. For children that maybe every day, for the rest of us the learning will be on demand. 

This isn’t some futuristic dream. Much of this is already available and possible. It just needs refining and scaling up.

Change Starts in the US .. or does it?

If you think that Africa and other “developing” regions follow the US and Europe, think again.

These developing areas are actually beating us in some technologies. In banking for example, they bypassed much of what we did and went from barter to mobile phoned based banking. The lack of the Internet spurred innovation and we could learn much from them.

For example, in Kenya and Tanzania the M-Pesa is used. It is a mobile phone based money transfer, microfinancing and financing service launched by Vodaphone in 2007. M-Pesa is now spreading across South Africa, India, Afghanistan and beyond. It’s spreading like an African bitcoin, but is more certain and reliable.

It’s the fact that places like Kenya have taken the M-Pesa onboard that makes it more certain they will bypass the teacher, or tutor, and largely adopt AI driven teacherless education when it is offered by businesses (not schools or colleges). And if they start down this route Western governments will be prompted, for economic and quality reasons, to adopt the same methods.

Micro-moments & Micro Learning .. in Micro Colleges.

Look around you and see how many people are working in the industry they took a degree in, or trained for. I personally trained in food technology via an agricultural college but have been in marketing for 30 plus years. In my education circle I know college CEOs that started in farming, finance, accountancy, hair and beauty, and much more. The common factor is we have all rebooted our careers several times.

Outside of education the Gig economy is growing. People increasingly jump from job to job, and career to career. In my circle I know a brickie that is now driving a digger, a plumber that is now making cheese and a banker that has started a microbrewery.

It’s no longer possible to predict the skills needed by a business or individual in 5-6 years. The consequence is we are teaching students for careers where, the technology they will use is not yet invented, in jobs that don’t yet exist.

Many of the best paid careers no longer demand a degree. Think commercial pilot, trader, and entrepreneurs of many shades.

Of equal concern is the advent of Uber, driverless delivery vehicles and drone based farming. All are now reality and will scale up in the next few years.

In the US there are currently 3.5 million truck drivers. If only 10% are replaced in the next decade the impact on retraining will be huge (the predictions are that 50+% will lose their jobs). Add to that the demise of the checkout staff in supermarkets, plus fewer retail assistants in shops due to online purchasing, and the employment market is facing significant change. And that means training and retraining will change with it.

This isn’t likely to result in a huge influx of people into conventional colleges. The future is more likely to be one of online and micro courses.

Earlier today I needed to know how to use a new piece of software. I needed it there and then .. in a micro moment .. and I took a video based micro-course. Ten minutes later I was using the new software and, when I became confused at one stage, the software corrected me and suggested ways of improving what I was doing.

Of course, there will be longer courses. But long might mean a few weeks long. Think of it as more like taking individual elements of a degree as they are needed and not being taken in a programme lasting years.

Classroom Centric Learning?

Teaching has always been about an expert teaching others with less knowledge, on a one to one or one to many basis. This has nearly always meant that teaching has been classroom centric as that is where the teacher was found. This was fine when you could have a teacher of geography, physics or art in every community. But with knowledge expanding at an exponential rate it’s no longer possible to have experts, on every subject people need to learn, in every community. So, if you want to study Creative Writing, Economics and Portuguese at A level, or are a business that needs someone trained in negotiation skills or advanced Sushi skills; there’s every likelihood that these courses can’t be offered conventionally in your community.

There are experts able to teach these subjects. But they are not local. They maybe on the other side of the world. So, we will need to move from being taught in our community to learning online.

That’s not to say colleges and teachers will disappear totally. But the role of the teacher is fast becoming that of mentor and facilitator of learning. And their class is increasingly likely to be viewed on a Zoom screen, and managed through Trello, than in more traditional ways.

Conventional College Choices

Colleges now have choices to make. Complaints about underfunding are rife. But if we re-examine our objectives, and think about how we deliver learning as micro classes, the tables are turned from the conventional model to something less conventional. Large classrooms aren’t needed as often. Teaching staff don’t necessarily need to come on campus each day as they can log on from any location. That means we can recruit staff from anywhere in the world, not just those that can commute to our campus.

Of course some changes are going to be needed to existing funding models and governments will need to be engaged in negotiations over this. And if the current publicly funded sector doesn’t start these discussions, then Google and other businesses will. Many of the micro courses I’m now taking myself are produced by freelancers in the gig economy. They charge a few $ for courses and sell high volumes of good quality courses worldwide. They don’t have the expense of a campus and run very lean.

These people are not alone. Larger learning providers are also setting up worldwide and are providing high quality courses, on demand, at fair prices. The on-demand element is a great USP where the consumer needs skills now rather than next September.

Having worked in FE since the 80s, I know how good FE can be. But I’m a little concerned that it hasn’t quite grasped what is happening outside of the campus. The micro-course, M-Pesa and Google’s future plans need addressing now, not when we finish worrying about Area Reviews, mergers, the Levy and whatever follows. If we wait until the decks are clear there will no longer be a deck to clear. The conventional college is fast disappearing and companies like Intequal have noticed; but I’m not sure enough FE people have noticed.  

About Stefan Drew: FHE Marketing Consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for over a decade has consulted with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US. Underfunded Education, LinkedIn

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