An education for 21st Century: What does it look like?

I must admit that I find the 21st Century part a cliche, an overused term which doesn't mean much. The conference circuit did it: They slapped the label everywhere, stretching it out all the way to 21st-century coffee, which looks and smells exactly like 20th-century coffee.

But, then, we are in the 21st century, unless someone did indeed miss waking up the last twenty years. It's dramatic for someone like me. When I started my first start-up in the middle of the dotcom frenzy in 1998, a friend dished e-commerce, announcing that only when milk and potato would be delivered over the Internet, he would believe in e-commerce [I did tell him about Webvan but it did not carry any weight with him]. Things have surely changed.

However, education hasn't changed much. As I have written earlier, online education hasn't yet changed the world the way Amazon.com (or eBay) has done. Most online provisions assumed, wrongly, that all that needs to be done is to put the class notes and lecture videos on a digital platform. The relationships with the learners remained the same; the assumptions about what good work looks like did not change at all. No wonder, for all the millions spent on online education ventures, it has failed to become 'the real thing'. 

Therefore, even if most use of '21st Century' is hot air, there needs to be a better way of doing 21st-century education. The technologies are all there and getting better every day. But the processes, the attitudes and the definitions have not changed much. The student is still a student, that creature who doesn't know much and who needs to be disciplined and taught. The content remained the same - a  body of knowledge representing the 'truth' even though we have long accepted the provisional nature of it all. The tutor and through him, the institution, still wielded enormous power over the lives of the students. It defined acceptable practices and languages, impervious to the fundamental changes in the way knowledge is accessed, ascertained and assimilated. 
 
And, all this sat on a mountain of bad assumptions. Creators of online learning gave little considerations to the physical space where the student will encounter the learning: Since they couldn't control it, they assumed it didn't matter. They also assumed that the learners would interact exactly the same way they do when they attend a lecture or read a textbook - and made little allowance for the very different way people behave online. Also, the online provisions missed important issues such as culture, of learning and communication; this was not just because they were remote but their imagination was limited by the existing practices within the schools and universities that underwrote the degrees.

This is exactly why most online education isn't really the 21st century. They use nifty technologies for sure, but any business is more than the technologies they use. An emoticon can't compensate for the patronising assumptions that sit behind it; no amount of CRM savvy can make up for the culturally blind engagement. For me, as I finally get a chance to build a new programme, an e-School programme about which I thought and wrote about for such a long time, the starting point of building an education fit for the 21st century is to recast the relationship with the learner. 

Therefore, the first thing I am doing now is to imagine my learner: She, who has to manage her demanding work and equally demanding social/family life, with all its attendant twists-and-turns, opportunities and disruptions; she, for whom learning isn't a leisurely activity to be withdrawing into, but a part of daily engagement; for whom education is an act of faith, of dreaming of progress and better life. She is a hero - and educators, for all their mastery of language and accumulated degrees, are not in a position to judge them. For me, the space for learning is one of mutual engagement, not unlike the redeeming moments of a Tolstoyan epic, where moments of encounter create understanding across the barriers of privilege and received stereotypes. 

In this space, the institution does not obsess over plagiarism, just to pick one example; it instead makes originality its key value and work tirelessly to bring all learners to believe in it. It doesn't create false barriers of course duration and essay deadlines, which exist to serve the institution; rather, it works out with the learners their personal goals and deadlines and works together to achieve the same. For me - as I have written before - this is more like a coffee-house than a college, a fellowship of people with different life experiences on a shared journey of exploration. And, all these are underpinned, I hope, with a fanatical commitment to students' individual success, making everyone's dreams count.

I am indeed told that this is all jolly good but has to happen outside the confines of a university degree. But then, I spent all my time straddling the two worlds just for this opportunity - to have a shot at building this new format of education, practical, reflective and yet scholarly. I am also told that this wouldn't scale, but I know from experience that scale matters less than building a good education. And, besides, if the education is bad, it doesn't scale anyway.

I am, therefore, deep into designing these 'encounters', to create opportunities to bring together insights from real life and putting them in perspective. This is exciting stuff, an opportunity to build a metric and a language that will be recognizable to our university partners, and yet blend with the learners' lives and experiences. One of my mentors once told me that education is all about the details: All those little moments where people allow glimpses into themselves - all those moments when change becomes possible - are about the carefully crafted safe psychological and physical spaces they are allowed into. That is the quest which is keeping me awake at night.

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