Education has been the focus of political reform in the UK. Despite the introduction of Academies which seemingly are starting to drive up student performance, a landmark report published by the OECD has found that young people in the UK are lagging behind in literacy and numeracy skills.

This situation needs to be rectified if we are to remain competitive in the global economy and many educational theorists are claiming that the answer lies in ‘disruptive education’: new ways of teaching and learning that promise greater speed and simplicity, at a lower cost.

The Internet means that we are all connected, at all times. The popularity of educational models like The Khan Academy, which offers software and free tutorials in a plethora of subjects, shows that students are increasingly demanding answers to the questions that plague them, when and where they desire them. Ubiquitous connectivity has made sticking to imposed timetables or being physically present in a classroom, unnecessary.

Three Major Disruptive Trends in Education

The leading expert in the field of disruptive education, Clayton Christensen (founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation), claims that markets are disrupted when new providers work out a method to provide a simpler product to a larger market of purchasers at a more reasonable price. Although there have been huge strides made in the past five years and there will undoubtedly be more new trends that will rock the foundation of education, thus far, three of the buzzwords on everyone’s lips are MOOC’s, Digital Badges and Competency Based Learning. This blog post takes a look at each of these in turn.

Massive Online Open Courses

MOOC’s were initially created to make education available online, for free, to students from all over the world. No charges were levied and no credit given. Since the industry’s humble beginnings, however, many changes have been made and not only are there a bevy of sophisticated providers (Coursera and Udacity, founded by academics at Stanford University boast millions of registered students); many courses provide certificates to students and many MOOCS have a price tag attached to them. A course at Coursera can last between six and 10 weeks and cover all subjects imaginable, including advanced mathematics and science.

How disruptive are MOOCS? In a fascinating article on MOOCS, Rob Abel of IMS Global argues that MOOCS are being over-hyped for various reasons: Firstly, MOOCS reflect traditional learning methods rather than truly departing from them; secondly, the percentage of students who have achieved credentials through MOOCS has remained level since the inception of this educational model. To be truly disruptive, argues Abel, MOOCS would have to really change the status quo, for instance, by enabling a student to obtain a K-Masters degree in 15 years rather than the current 19 years.

Moreover, for many academics, the future of education does not lie in massification; it lies in personalisation – “The more unique and distinctive your educational experience is, the more valuable it is… we need many more niche-oriented institutions that provide specialised, career-enabling and life-enabling education.” MOOCS may not be quite as disruptive as they are made out to be, but they certainly represent the trend towards online learning and ‘flipping the classroom’. The latter involves using online material to ‘teach’ subjects to students, who can then use classroom time to discuss and debate key points with their teacher. In flipped classrooms, teachers can use available time to explain problem areas to specific students, rather than give long-winded lectures to students, some of which may already understand the subject matter being covered.

Digital Badges

This disruptive technological system allows employees to obtain digitalised ‘badges’ for obtaining a certificate, completing a course or learning a relevant skill. In their initial stages, the use of badges lacked the organisation and standardisation they needed to provide authentic value to their owners. However, products such as Mozilla Open Badges, a free type of software and an open technical standard any organisation can use to create, issue and verify digital badges, have greatly increased their value, especially within large corporations, where badges are used “to tell the full story” of an employee’s skills and achievements. The badges can also be obtained from various sources and displayed on one’s social networks. Badges have come to be highly valuable, since they contain vital details about their criteria and the person/organisation who has issued them. They also provide evidence of what employees have done to earn them.

Competency-Based Learning

The idea behind competency-based learning is to personalise education to the greatest degree possible. Many students, especially of postgraduate studies, have considerable experience in or knowledge about specific fields. Through competency-based learning, these students can save time by cutting out subjects or skills they have already mastered. Courses are often broken down into various blocks, which students can pursue depending on their interests or their employers’ needs.

In order for competency-based learning to have a truly disruptive effect, however, it is vital that each block or module provide truly useful objectives and content. Students should be able to apply the knowledge they have obtained in a way that is authentically useful to them and to their employer.

The education trends currently deemed ‘disruptive’ undoubtedly have a long way to go, if they are to offer the practical and lasting solutions they claim to. Over the years, research will need to be carried out into matters like enrolment vs completion rates, money saved, and real skills and qualifications obtained. As time is of the essence for most students, it will also be interesting to see if these methods are able to shorten the time and expense it takes to obtain required qualifications. Finally, since these methods are still in the early stages, much thought needs to placed into how to obtain the maximum benefit out of courses like MOOCS; instead of replacing University, they could very well function in a complementary manner, though the precise details of how to achieve this goal still need to be worked out.

I hope that you have found this blog post interesting. Please feel free to share your thoughts about the disruptive nature of these technologies in the comments below.




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