Future of Education 2020 Summit

mastheadcollegesiloAt a Stanford education conference this morning, speakers made presentation after presentation without once involving the audience, not even asking for questions. For the first couple of hours there was zero audience participation. Finally, following a panel session, we were invited to stand at a microphone if we had questions. Naturally, I was first in line.

I explained that I came to this event as an outsider. I am not an academic. In fact, my corporate title is “Chief Unlearning Officer.” A speaker had mentioned silos, referring to departments at schools. I said I felt like I was in a college silo. It’s as if the world outside didn’t exist.

Take STEM (Science, tech, engineering, math). All of these folks are vitally interested in STEM. After all, that’s what the Gates Foundation, the NSF, and the other benefactors are paying them hundreds of millions to produce. I said I don’t get it. The shelf life of STEM knowledge is about the same as for French mustard, several years. After that, the mustard begins to smell funny and the STEM knowledge is obsolete.

I didn’t mention my suspicion that STEM dumbs down education. It’s explicit knowledge. Life’s grand lessons are largely tacit. Besides, isn’t STEM often the algorithmic knowledge that robots are going to being doing in a few years? When that happens, lots of STEM grads may find themselves in the position of John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man. Nobody here was talking about liberal arts and continuing the culture.

Consider the role of STEM education in someone’s career arc. A career is a marathon. College teaches people to run the first 100 yards. Running the rest of the race is the individual’s problem.

“But we are working with industry,” replied the panel. Oh yeah? People have been touting big data as the ultimate quality control and planning tool in education. Are any of you looking at big data on people outside your walls? Correlating education with what happens after graduation? No; it’s a closed system.

Big data can help Arizona State University refine their algebra course to near perfection, but unless they go off campus to look at the world of work, no data will tell them whether algebra is worth studying at all. (I love Roger Schank’s putdown of the quadratic equation. When’s the last time you had to solve for AX2 + BX +C = 0?)

How’s the water?

It was troubling to hear one person after another lecture about learning more about how people learn whlle violating most of the principles we already know. Aside from the Push format, problems included no hashtag, no Tweeting, no backchannel, no power outlets, inoperable wi-fi (for me, at least), slow wi-fi at the podium cut several presentations short, weak visuals overall, and no encouragement to network online (although many probably already know one another). I don’t know how someone as astute at Peter Norvig could sit through an entire day of this stuff.

A few highlights. The president of Capella talked of converting their curriculum to competencies. Competencies can be counted up after the fact to give credit for courses. I suggested he wasn’t going for enough. Who needs courses? He wisely pointed out that accrediting bodies have a fixed mindset on this one.

Arizona State has put an entire first year curriculum on line. For free. Pass a course, no matter how many tries it takes, and you can pay a fee for credits. He sees no reason the entire four years shouldn’t go online this way. (And the guy from Capella suggested that as in the UK, we could probably have three-year bachelor degrees without losing that much.)

True to form, the LMS vendor supporting the show twisted the definition of “informal learning” so it could claim to have some:


What’s informal about purpose-built content? Most people probably missed this because next up was a hip-hop singer who claimed to be a customer of the LMS (he lists his tracks there). Naturally, he had put together a song for us. As he began his incomprehensible lyric, the batteries on my hearing aids ran out and I bailed out from the event.

The other attendees seemed quite satisfied, even impressed. “Brilliant presentations.” I guess events like this are de rigueur.

The Stanford campus is beautiful, the weather cooperated perfectly, and nobody was keeping score.