Beyond Project-Based Learning: Towards An Open System

The problem of connecting educators and employers is not a new one. There are many organisations and institutions working at creating this interface, some more successfully than others. The field is full of well-meaning individuals and fascinating ideas, some more workable than others. However, one key lesson, a common one, has perhaps been ignored by most of the people: That no closed, proprietary solution may actually work.

This should have been obvious in a field where the key problem arise because of the closed, proprietary approaches. The Educators mostly believe they are doing a great job - at least, the best possible one - and the degrees and grades they give out, under the full authority of the state and with the gravitas of their quality assurance, should be accepted at the face value by the employers. The employers, in turn, believe that the people they require should appear, with right skills and attitude, a perfect understanding of their cultures and customers, and they are always in the chase to find that perfect candidate. This is a classic case of two closed systems trying to co-create a value chain without ever speaking to one another!

Enter the solution providers, disruptors and dent-makers: There are many, ranging from those who believe more education may make the learners more ready, and those who believe that one should aim for less education, some practical training after high school should do. And, indeed, they together create closed boxes of all shapes and sizes, all providing end-to-end solution, promoting their secret sauces, magic formula and proven methodologies. The solution - they claim in unison - is known, "Trust Me"! 

The problem though is exactly that: In the viewpoint that there could exist one single solution, one single method, one business model, one approach to create an universal solution. Einstein's message, that it is foolish to try the same methods that failed and expect a successful outcome, is totally lost here. Despite what is obvious with some perspective - that the problem lies in the closed systems - the quest is always for a 'better' closed system, an educational methodology or a new kind of degree that speaks the employers' language.

It is perhaps easy to see why this problem arises and why solving it may be the biggest step forward in the Education-to-Employment conversation. Most, if not all, Higher Education systems are closed systems, where outcomes and languages are defined by insiders and whose legitimacy stem from state-appointed regulators. It is a system founded on a closed system of knowledge, on the assumption that the 'experts' indeed know best. And, this has defined the 'business model' for Higher Education - one that of a Value Chain, a process that the learners have to go through to become 'qualified'. This process is defined in terms of learning - an inexact phrase whose meaning is still indeterminate - and assessment - defined in the context of standards, state and regulator-defined. Most attempts to create a better Education-To-Employment interface stay firmly within this paradigm, and try to build new solutions, by expanding the definition of 'experts' to include 'practitioners' and by installing the employers on the same pedestal as the regulators and the government.

Common-sense as it may sound, this type of solution ignores a number of issues that cause the education-to-employment gap in the first place. First, this assumes that the employers have a clearly defined standard that could be integrated into 'learning': If such a standard really existed, and existed in an easily translatable language to make sense in the academic world, the problem would not have existed in the first place. Second, this assumes that the employer requirements remain relatively stable, which, as any employer would perhaps tell you, is as much fiction as the first one. Third, it is based on the incorrect assumption that while educators operate with a closed paradigm, the employers are more open: In fact, candidate specifications defined to the every last detail is as much a cause of education-to-employment gap. Fourth, this is also based on a vision of a 'benevolent company', the idea that large enterprises are focused on creating social value by participating in education: They are not, and see themselves as a 'consumer' rather than a participant in Higher Education in most cases (though not in all cases, and engagements of employers in high end research and development are often cited, out of context, to maintain this myth). 

However, the single most important reason why the hope that an efficient closed system can be built to solve the education-to-employment problem has persisted is because it works, when attempted in a smaller scale. In specific situations, for specific industries, with the support of a small number of executives, with a charismatic founder, a closed system solution, an education that puts the employer requirements at its heart and employer language as its style, can indeed work. This is how it works in some remarkable small universities, as well as in Research Labs in eminent institutions. That this is the dominant model of Higher Education, and that some examples of close coordination between employers and educators exist, are the essential reasons why so many 'global solutions' are being built around closed models of education and employment.

The alternative, an Open Systems solution, would need to be built around a different set of assumptions how Higher Education works. For example, the starting point of such thinking, as Clayton Christiansen suggested, may be to see Higher Education as an 'User Network Solution', which frames the process of education as membership of and involvement in a community. In this view, Education is not about a defined process, with a well-defined start and end, but an ongoing engagement in a community (which may have different status and honour levels) with a commitment to explore and develop. This may conjoin various closed systems - indeed, it could be built as a network of closed systems, such as employers and universities - focused on evolving a common currency for education-to-employment transition.

This common currency should be something more wholesome than 'soft skills' (see my post on Soft Skills) and more solid than 'Competences', and yet more practical than University Degrees which bears no meaning outside the seal of authority from the state (see my note here). It must also be more than 'Experience', as experience is context-dependent and often limited to specific circumstances and cultures. The absence of an obvious common currency is indeed why various closed systems continue to exist, hawking various proxies for abilities and attitudes. This is where, however, an Open System may have an unique solution to offer, built out of portfolio of performances, validated by 'trust protocols' (as Blockchain could be), situated in the new Internet of Value (I owe these terms to Don Tapscott). This is what I am now working on - constructing an Open System to connect the Educators and Employers, that allows the learners to build a Portfolio Self as they engage in learning and experience real life, learn from and give back to their communities and participate in a global ecosystem of emergent knowledge.


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