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The Age of Convergence: Considering a Continuum and an Unbundling of Education

The EvoLLLution | The Age of Convergence: Considering a Continuum and an Unbundling of Education
As the context and expectations of students continues to evolve, it’s critical for postsecondary institutions—and all involved stakeholders—to begin re-imagining the traditional models of higher education to better suit today’s realty and tomorrow’s needs.

“Convergence” at its simplest occurs when two or more distinct entities, concepts or phenomena are brought together. It can also be thought of as a process that breaks down barriers between disciplines, enabling novel solutions and new ways of tackling complex scientific and societal challenges. More commonly it describes multiple technologies brought together in a single device, creating a totally new level of functionality. The phone is a classic example of convergence. Once used purely as a means of transmitting sound between locations, in its incarnation as a “smartphone” it is now a multi-functional device capable of surfing the web, storing and accessing vast amounts of information, monitoring health, controlling devices remotely, serving as a means of entertainment, placing orders and paying bills, and enabling communications through sound and image. It also demonstrates how advances in technology can create changes in society, culture and the economy. Thus, convergence can no longer be considered purely the domain of technology. Rather it has made it possible for resources, ideas and people to flow swiftly across yesterday’s barriers of time and space, changing social interactions and socio-political and cultural norms, often becoming the driver for the creation of new mechanisms of interaction, product delivery, and serving the needs of a market segment.

In this context, we need to now think of education, writ large, as a continuum with shared responsibility and also be willing to disaggregate it into packages on demand at appropriate levels along the continuum, ensuring that we take advantage of a Google- and Amazon-based society. There may be no better time to achieve the centuries old vision of truly democratizing education and ensuring the widest spread of knowledge.

Developed over centuries, our educational system consists of separate entities with very little structured connection between them. In many ways the transition from one to the other could be compared to the anecdotal development of a set of design plans which are thrown over to the shop floor without consideration of the tolerances and intricacies of manufacturing processes. In the industrial world we have labored mightily to stop this “over the shoulder” blind hand-off yet we allow, and at times even create, further mechanisms for analogs within our educational system. We complain at the university level that students coming to us from high schools are not well prepared. High schools have the same complaint of middle schools, middle schools of elementary schools, and elementary to stages even prior to that! Each unit blames the one preceding it and yet we have, in aggregate, done very little to fix the transitions.

Further, for years there has been a growing disconnect between the knowledge provided to students and their preparation for the workforce. The gap between skills development and academic knowledge continues to grow in certain disciplines and just as we blame the high schools for not preparing students adequately for success at the university level we tend to blame the corporate world for requiring too much of us in preparing graduating students to “hit the ground running” and be productive employees immediately on entering the workforce.

In today’s technologically driven world information and knowledge are growing at exponential rates and these advances have changed the way we communicate, socialize and live. While technology allows us to reach larger audiences and provide more information, academia still faces the issue of significantly increasing the percentage of educated citizens globally. Access is often limited by location, focus on traditional and outdated modes of interaction, time, increasing costs and corresponding debt.

Universities need to be able to meet the requirements for rapidly changing advanced skillsets required after completion of a basic degree, so that the degree-holding individual can keep up with the changing requirements of the workforce. Thus, there is a need for the constant updating of knowledge and skills, making what used to be a distinct enterprise now an integral part of the educational system.

In this context it is reasonable for us to ask a very simple question: Have we, in higher education, really progressed over the last few decades? We may have evolved from blackboards, chalk and lectures to video screens and digital delivery, but one has to wonder whether we have really changed the modality and scope of learning. By and large our definition of a student is still the same—a person willing to spend a lot of time sitting in a classroom face-to-face with an instructor, or one who is still constrained in progress by seat time even if the “seat” is now a virtual one.

Today, our students are true digital natives—focused on needs being met 24/7 and at will, irrespective of location; self-assured of their rights as consumers in being able to demand what they need rather than what they are told they should need; keen to learn by doing rather than just by listening to lectures or by rote memorization, using technology to leverage their time and efforts; focused on outcomes even at very short time scales and more likely than not to work as members of a group, forsaking individual effort for the efforts of a team.

The traditional conflict between the preparation of a learned citizen and the development of skillsets needed for immediate entry and success in the workforce continues to grow as one compares the role of a traditional university with that needed to be played by a modern one. Far from just being the intellectual and socio-cultural hub of a community, a modern university is expected to be an economic driver for the region, creating wealth and attracting investment and entrepreneurial talent.

The environmental changes that have resulted in increasing conflict between traditional models of higher education and the characteristics needed from universities in the 21st century bring with them tremendous forces of change. Some are related to the very definition of a “student” and their high level of comfort as digital natives in a world driven by the fast pace of technology and innovation, as well as other factors such as the future value of degrees in comparison to “knowledge on demand.”

In today’s world we need to recognize that higher education in general needs to be focused not just on creating an educated citizenry but also on preparing for tomorrow’s workforce in a world changing so rapidly that some careers with qualifications not even thought about a decade ago are now the most in demand. The changes can be accelerated and made more efficient through the facilitation of partnerships among institutions, government and the corporate world. There is a critical need, based on demand, for a major shift in educational methods, away from passive classroom lecture-based degree courses toward interactive, collaborative learning experiences, provided as, when, and where the students need the knowledge and skills. The constraints of time, space and location can be alleviated by technology to enable not just flexibility but also enhanced modalities of learning that blur the various stages of learning throughout one’s lifetime, resulting in a continuum from K to Gray.

We have the tools to now allow for learning based on individual ability rather than on the decades-old aggregated norm for a group. Learning can be at the pace and rate that best suits each individual. In addition, the use of digital instruction essentially expands the concept of both a university-bound faculty and student population. The very best individuals from across the globe can be assembled, from both institutions of higher education and from society at large, to teach a course or a program. Imagine the power of being able to learn from the very best talent from Arlington, Texas one day, New Delhi, India the next, and Sydney, Australia on the third—all while sitting at a desk, or on a couch, in another city thousands of miles away. Distance and travel time between locations are no longer barriers. The very definition of “student” will change—no longer restricting knowledge to a set of people with similar characteristics, since instruction, or rather learning, will be based on ability and desire, rather than chronological age or time in seat.

We need to move towards implementing the potential of students being able to choose modules from a library of knowledge, developing courses and certificates based on levels of interest and prior learning. Certificates, specializations and badges could be the norm, with these being aggregated, or “stacked,” to enable a degree, credential or qualification. In this format the student, or potential employer, could define the curriculum within pre-set bounds, enhancing the effectiveness in meeting workforce needs or enabling an individual to rapidly gain specialized knowledge in an area pertinent to their field. While some in academia may well consider the “Amazonization” of education heresy, one has to also admit that it does enable greater access, faster delivery as and when needed, and potentially significantly lower costs for a higher quality of services.

It is under these circumstances that one now needs to re-envision universities. No longer bound by location, time in seat, or even the level of education sought by a student, education can truly take on a global perspective, with instructors and students coming together across the previous bounds of time and space and effectively engaging at the widest possible level, simultaneously enabling both socio-cultural change and economic development.

To do this we must radically rethink how access, excellence and impact are brought together. Institutions of higher education today are, by and large, still focused on high-cost, low-technology, residential education and on the outmoded idea that quality in education is linked to exclusivity of access and extravagance of resources, denying the fruits of higher education to tens of millions of young people. Our current paradigms for higher education, the nature of our academic programs, the organization of higher education, and the way that we finance, conduct, and disseminate knowledge will need to adapt to the demands and realities of our time, ensuring that we:

  • Provide global access without pre-set limitations on the definition of a student;
  • Remove bounds of co-location, synchronous instruction, and geographically bound instructors;
  • Enable multi-, cross- and inter-disciplinarity;
  • Assess knowledge rather than seat time;
  • Re-envision the definition of “disciplines” and “qualifications”;
  • Provide flexibility in schedule, both in terms of start and length of a module of knowledge; and
  • Keep pace with the needs of a rapidly changing world.

The future, however, is not new. It is one that comes from the ages, expanding access through technology and enabling Plato’s concept of a learned teacher instructing a few pupils to be democratized without losing the essential aspects of individual attention, and a rigorous and quality education.

Transforming the university to serve a global, knowledge-based society is not only possible but is being done today at a number of institutions, such as the University of Texas at Arlington, where faculty are driving change at an unprecedented pace, engaging social, economic, technological and market forces to adapt to the world of tomorrow—as we meet the present, and future, needs of our students today.