A Future Without Schooling?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

We might disagree with Sugata Mitra’s SOLE, or Self-Organized Learning Environment, on specific points, and we might say that his arguments may be oversimplified, but it’s tough to disagree with the idea that teaching could be boiled down to an intriguing question, a computer with internet access, and an encouraging adult. In this scenario, schools and teachers are absent. Students, naturally motivated to discover the answers for themselves online, are intermittently cheered on by adults, who don’t teach but simply encourage, and this intervention, if you can call it that, could easily be from a distance via untrained but caring adults.

“Sugata Mitra: Build a School in the Cloud” was uploaded to YouTube by TED on 27 Feb. 2013.

More important, though, are the implications, and for me, the one that surfaces at the top is, Can we, educators, imagine a future without traditional schools and teachers? The same can be asked of higher ed, Can we imagine a future without traditional colleges and professors?

And the answer?

Actually, we’ve already begun the imagining, and the early prototypes are completely online courses and, more recently, MOOCs.

The unavoidable realization is that the architecture of knowledge has changed and the media for knowing has leapfrogged schools and teachers into the hands of students of all ages. Students can pursue knowledge on their own or with peers, 24/7, from anywhere. They don’t need to sit obediently in a classroom to be rationed knowledge by a trained adult. They can get all they want by themselves, anywhere — instantly.

Can, though, and will are the issue. I think most will agree that, yes, students “can” learn on their own or with peers, but the problem is “will” they? In fact, the argument repeated most often by educators to justify traditional schooling is that students lack the “will” to learn on their own and, therefore, need teachers as task masters. Left alone, they would play games, socialize, daydream — but they wouldn’t learn. Even if they wanted to learn, they wouldn’t know how. Therefore, classrooms and teachers are vital.

If this is true, then I can’t help but feel that this is an indictment of traditional schooling. Years of regimented schooling has succeeded in creating regimented students who are unable and unwilling to learn on their own. Needless to say, this is contrary to all the stated goals of education.

The ultimate goal of education is independent learners, and Mitra’s gift to educators is the realization that students are intrinsically wired to be independent learners and schools can either nurture and encourage this natural tendency or squelch it in the name of teaching.

The challenge for educators in 2014 is to see if we can’t create learning environments that can facilitate the way students naturally learn in a world where knowledge and knowing are no longer limited to teachers and classrooms.

MOOCs are the first big step away from the spatial limitations of classrooms, and educators the world over are gaga over the experience. I haven’t seen this much excitement about teaching — ever. And the irony is that it’s more about learning than teaching, more about students than teachers. Aware of this unintended consequence, some prominent MOOCers are desperately scrabbling backward to reestablish the importance of teachers and F2F classroom interactions by advocating blended approaches, but the landslide has begun and going back is not an option.

At the end of the first month of 2014, we’re standing on the edge of a vista that staggers the imagination. We can either be paralyzed by fear or awed by the possibilities. Either way, there’s no turning back. The future is now.

10 Responses

  1. I think there is a lot to it and the sophistication of artificial intelligence makes an artificial tutor quite possible in the medium future, perhaps one that adjusts to our present state of mind, one that is onboard and online 24 hours a day, something like SIRI’s great granddaughter with biofeedback that will back off when you are distracted or not alert but can fire up a quick history lesson or math problem in the middle of the night if you can’t sleep.

  2. Brett, I think you’re right. AI is the colossus that’s lurking in the haze that’s our future. We’re at the stage of “smart” technologies, and the inevitable next step is “intelligent” technologies, and the difference between the two will be quantum.

    The other side of the coin of devices and systems that can learn is the ability to teach — to teach itself as well as others. And that, alone, redefines the entire game of education and, in turn, life.

    For example, AI will redefine space exploration. Instead of risking human lives, we’ll be sending intelligent devices. One of their tasks may be to prepare the way for humans, but the human presence may not be as critical as we might imagine. In fact, humans may be detrimental in many cases.

    The question in our future very well may be, What does it mean to be human when devices are potentially more intelligent? What is our role in a world that’s increasingly dependent on AI?

  3. I have to disagree with the following statement: “Years of regimented schooling has succeeded in creating regimented students who are unable and unwilling to learn on their own. Needless to say, this is contrary to all the stated goals of education.” If you look at the demographics of people who currently take and complete MOOCs, these are precisely the people who have spent years in traditional education and many of them have earned graduate degrees. They have already learned how to learn in a more structured setting and now they can build on already acquired skills and become independent and life-long learners.

    • Good point, dpedeva. I agree with you re MOOC finishers. Still, my guess is that independent learners are the exception — among current students in (and grads from) traditional learning environments. I’m also guessing that online experiences will radically alter students, and they, in turn, will literally force schools and colleges to accommodate more independent learning opportunities. The real disruption is ultimately in the students themselves — not in institutions. They expect the freedom and flexibility of anytime-anywhere learning, and they will drive change.

      • Hi, Jim,

        Thank for replying to my comment. I will give a little bit of background here on why I disagree with some of your statements.
        I teach at a community college in California, and the majority of students I work with are not the kind of students you are talking about – life-long self-learners. More than sixty percent of our students (and the ones attending state universities) test below college level in reading, writing, and math at the time of their first semester and have few learning habits. (California has the largest community college system in the country and exemplifies the student population at large.) These students need support structure- counselors, caring educators, tutors, etc. to acquire the needed skills to succeed in college and life. Some of them become life-long learners, and other are just interested in getting their degrees and moving into the professional world. Becoming a life-long learner is a choice that every individual has to make and is also influenced by one’s working environment. Life-long learning and self-motivation are not innate qualities in human beings – they are socially-acquired and learned.

        I also teach both online and face-to-face, and my student retention and student-completion levels are always higher in my physical classes. Many of my online students are in their 30s, stay-at-home moms, students looking to earn a certificate or learn new skills. Some of the students are concurrently enrolled in high school and college, and others are first or second year in college. My best students are usually the older ones, who already possess time-management skills and self-motivation. Some students are interested in learning; others care only about their grades and earning the degree that will hopefully lead them to their dream job. The points I am trying to make here is that I do not see traditional education going way in the near future. Yes, there will be more and more online education and technology can facilitate the transmission of information and allow more access, but it is not a panacea for all challenges in higher education. You can place students in a library full of books, but that does not mean that they will pick a book and read. You can provide students with the best online resources, but what will they do with them? Can they sort through all the information and determine which one is useful and trustworthy? Can they synthesize information and make sense of it?

        • Hi dpedeva.

          I acknowledge your observations and empathize with your assessment of the issues. BTW, we share similar teaching circumstances. A lot of the apparent differences between our views fade away when we distinguish between the culture of the school and the culture of the student’s world.

          Students who may not be self-motivated or life-long learners in school may be the exact opposite in their own out-of-school family or neighborhood. For example, see Jeremy Scott Burg’s “Jorge: The Education of a 12-year-old in an Immigrant Family” (ETCJ, 12/13/13).

          For educators, the question may be, How can we change the culture of the school so that it ignites the students’ natural love of learning? For this purpose, technology is a godsend.

  4. Interesting thoughts, Jim. Three other points come to mind as I read your post.
    Not all children have access to caring adults except through school and even those children whose parents care have the skills to provide the guidance they need to learn efficiently. Schools develop citizens through the common experience we all have in them. Rightly or wrongly, schools are tools that society has chosen to develop common traits such as citizenship, work ethic and other traits seen as good for national strength. My last thought, and this is the elephant in the classroom, schools are a form of daycare for many parents. For a variety of reasons, many parents rely on schools to provide a safe place for their child for a number of hours a day.
    I am excited by the promise technology makes to education. I do not think that traditional schools will disappear any time soon. Society is too dependent on schools and change will come slowly. Jim’s challenge to create natural, open learning environments is worthy of teachers’ attention because it is the way schools will change.

    • Mary, you bring up a good point, and I agree that schools as daycare for children will need to continue for those families that need it. However, I think we need to distinguish between school and education — school being a physical location and education meaning learning. The problem is that they’re not necessarily related. Learning can now occur anywhere, and schools are just one of the places.

      Thus, we can imagine schools as places where much of the learning is independent and in the clouds. In this way, students can be protected as well as guided. For “protection,” we could begin to look at cost-effective volunteers and paraprofessionals, i.e., rather than rely solely on teachers for a task that may not require extensive higher ed.

      Re “caring adults” — Mitra recruited “grannies” to serve as caring adults, and the “caring” could be from a distance via the internet and it could be as simple as saying “Wow!” every once in a while in response to student efforts. The point is that adult encouragement doesn’t have to be elaborate, costly, or professional.

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