The Next Education Revolution? By Dan Butin

The Next Education Revolution

The Next Education Revolution? By Dan Butin

I may be a “yank,” but I know enough that Australia is not populated just by kangaroos, crocodiles, and Iggy Azalea. And I also know that your “unis” are about to dramatically change.

I am not talking about changes that are part of the daily pressures of Australian universities (such as Sydney University’s recent announcement about offering four-year degrees). I am talking about dramatic changes in the transformation of teaching and learning in the next three to five years that have no borders and will dramatically impact all of us in higher education.

For I believe that we are at a critical juncture in how we think about and enact “education,” and the direction we take will impact our vision and enactment of the role of universities in our society and our preparation of students to be thoughtful and engaged citizens. Put simply and starkly, we must choose between education as the transfer of information versus the transformation of knowledge; or what I would call an apprenticeship into Wikipedia versus an apprenticeship into democracy.

Let me explain.

We have seen these changes coming for years now and in some ways have already become inured to such seeming disruptions. Online learning. Yawn. MOOCs. Whatever. Competency-based education. Been there. Done that. It is as if every new technology is just old wine in new bottles as the technology hype cycle swings us from the excitement of inflated expectations to the disappointment at the depths of the trough of disillusionment. This is worse than a Victoria Bitter hangover.

But this time it’s different. It’s different because technology has become good enough that it can deliver a more-or-less “good enough” education and, in effect, break the “iron triangle” of higher education: cost, quality, and access. It used to be that you could only adequately do two out of three: such as minimize costs and increase access, with the consequence being that quality was diminished. Baumol’s “cost disease” – the idea that certain jobs, such as teaching, always require a certain amount of time to do well and thus cannot be routinized and made more efficient and effective by technology – was rightly cited as the problem. Yet a wide variety of research is crystal clear by now that no specific teaching model – face-to-face, hybrid, or online learning – is definitively any better.

And, yes, the reality of what we face gets worse. For technology is really good at routinizing and replacing what we used to think of as humans-only kind of jobs. We have come to expect this in industries as wide-ranging as accounting to travel agents to medical technicians. The rise of powerful digital learning technologies, I suggest, presages the exact same thing in our universities.

We already see the outlines of this in the use of cloud computing, adaptive learning, and intelligent tutoring systems, and we will see this ever more as data mining techniques and learning analytics sift through immense amount of our ongoing online learning to develop ever-better models for delivering information. This is a major driver of the “unbundling” of faculty work and will only increase as universities find cheaper and more efficient ways to “teach” our students. What we will all be left with is a future where what we thought we knew how to do – transfer information to our students – can be done better by someone (or something) else.

Unless we change.

For what technology cannot do, and what we in universities are supposed to be experts in, is help students translate and transform the well-defined knowledge found in our textbooks into the messiness of the ill-defined real world. In the end, technology is “brittle” in that it is exactly a routinized and brutally efficient tool for solving more-or-less already-solved problems. But the world and the issues we care about are never already-solved. They require thoughtful and engaged citizens who can take into account specific information, different perspectives, local contexts, and complex and often contradictory goals to find, develop and implement meaningful solutions.

So let me be clear. This cannot be done by a machine. It can, though, be done by – and is being done by – professors, courses, and academic programs that are able to rethink what we mean by education. Specifically, what we must do is begin to rethink teaching and learning to finally take into account what educational research has long known: that engagement matters. We must figure out how to support student engagement with issues that they care about, that matter out in the real world, and that have real impact.

It is this engagement that stands at the heart of the revitalization of higher education. I, and many other researchers, talk about this as “community engagement,” but it can be thought about in many other ways, from “project-based learning” to “high-impact practices” to the “flipped classroom.” What all of these have in common is that they support authentic and deep learning through multiple levels of curricular, student, community, and public engagement. They all subscribe to the notion that education is a complex process that cannot be simply or directly deposited into students’ heads. It cannot be routinized.

This is the next education revolution. It is coming whether we like it or not in the form of digital learning technologies and the concomitant disruption of how universities function and what faculty do. The question thus in front of us is not whether or not we like it; it is what we are going to do about it. These are changing times and they require changing our vision and practice of teaching and learning.

Dan Butin, PhD, is a Full Professor and Founding Dean of the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College and the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Democracy. Dr. Butin is the author and editor of more than eighty academic publications, the editor of Palgrave’s series Community Engagement in Higher Education, an Associate Editor of the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning and a board member of the Journal of College and Character. He was named by Education Week as one of the top 200 “Public Presence” Education Scholars three years in a row (2012, 2013, and 2014). See