Knowledge Sharing

Notes From Education xChange 2.0

WDI’s Education Initiative recently participated in the Second Annual Education xChange. Sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business’ Education + Business (E+B) Club, the day-long event focused on the intersection of education and business. While attendees came from industry and the community, they mostly comprised students from Ross, the School of Education, or the School of Information. With them, I sought insight into the conference’s overarching questions: “What does the future of education look like and how is education changing? How are individuals and organizations, private and public, big and small, disrupting education?”

Framing the event with questions seems right. Education is in the business of questions: provoking them, answering them, and, yes, questioning them. When it comes to the future of the field, questions continue. As talk has increasingly focused on educational technology (EdTech), little is certain, except that the need for education, in one form or another, will continue; and that technological innovation is frequently changing how it’s delivered. This suggests fewer sureties, more questions and conjectures.

The keynote speaker, Cameron Evans, opened the day with a question of his own. “What abilities are we not embedding into education now, but will want in our workforce in years to come?” he asked. As Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft Education, Evans has a vested perspective on the role technology plays in education’s future, and he offered it. From his standpoint, EdTech innovation has traditionally been developed for business and then retrofitted to education in a hand-me-down approach. Microsoft once took this approach but has now begun to design technologies exclusively for education.

Microsoft Education has thought through its rationale. Evans asserted that mobile technology will re-shape the job force, virtual connectivity will transcend that of in-person — and this has huge implications for how tomorrow’s students will learn. As with work, “learning will not be somewhere we go, but something we do,” he claimed. As for the tech-naysayers, they simply have not seen the kind of technology on its way, nor contemplated its unprecedented ability to transcend place. Microsoft’s products, we were told, will purvey an awe-inspiring virtual experience for learners-aka-workers.

Evans then identified four skills he believes will define the 21st ½ century workforce (with my gloss):

1.) Creativity & Design (going beyond coding, we must ask “beautiful questions”).

2.) Cultural Savvy (relating across differences and helping others be successful – “If others can’t build on what you’re doing,” Evans said, “you’re not successful”).

3.) Storytelling (engaging written and oral communication).

4.) Remix/Hacking (improvising solutions).

With more time, I would have liked to learn how these skills vary with social location. Does this skillset support economy-building in general? It envisions an entrepreneur- and enterprise-friendly job market.

Next, three panelists spanning the EdTech industry and academia shared their perspectives on the intersection of education and technology. Despite their different vantage points, panelists’ views were fairly congruent. A major point was that EdTech is difficult to scale in schools, largely due to rapid technological turnover and high costs of adoption, and funding discrepancies between decentralized school districts. While each panelist agreed that technology can successfully facilitate learning – not surprising – they also noted that EdTech has traditionally been business-motivated rather than student-motivated; as such, it can only do so much for learner-centered education models. (This is the legacy Microsoft contributed to, and which its Education innovations aim to challenge.) In early efforts to adopt technology-aided learning, many districts de-emphasized curriculum development; now, however, some of the most progressive education models are simplifying on tech and returning to their greatest resources: teachers, and the relationships they alone can develop with students.

While much of this conference pertained to the K-12 sphere, its application to professional education came into focus. Here are four upshots I see for professional education (as uniquely developed by WDI):

  1. Educators and administrators alike are in a time of responding to the real or perceived disconnect in industry between skills and credentials. Some of these responses head in an EdTech direction (e.g., MOOCs), others choose to reform at the teacher-student relationship level, others advocate a both-and approach (blended learning). Within WDI’s Education Initiative, we take a blended learning approach when possible, utilizing e-learning modules and other educational technologies.
  2. EdTech can facilitate learning, but has been business-motivated, rather than student-motivated. MOOCs have shown signs of disrupting this, but it will be interesting to see how other advances change this. But for now, “tech” is a critical letter away from “teach.”
  3. More to the point: pedagogy outplays technology. Peter Drucker’s famous dictum “culture eats strategy for lunch” applies to education, too. Innovation is great inasmuch as it advances teaching-for-learning, but the culture of learning is often tied not to innovative niches but rather brilliant teachers. Systems and technology will continue to contribute to education, in new and unforeseen ways, but excellent learning-facilitation remains key to effective education. Within our initiative, this is a distinction of our work; in our commitment to excellent, mission-driven professional education, pedagogy takes priority. This is why we partner with top-notch faculty affiliates across institutions and regions.
  4. The skillset for the 21st ½ century Evans identified is based on Microsoft’s extensive research. As such, its wider applicability (beyond U.S.-based K-12) must be considered carefully in the design of programs intended to cultivate entrepreneurial mindsets and skillsets in young people – as well as in middle-managers – in emerging economies, where access to EdTech varies widely.

Professional (or executive) education is often among the most innovative forms of education. Or, given that it stands outside of the funding challenges of public education and has clientele demanding high-tech solutions, it has the potential to be. As a mission-driven organization, dedicated to increasing economic inclusion in emerging economies, we approach the xChange’s overarching questions in a slightly different vein. We are rigorous about exploring and offering innovative tools. At the same time, however, we recognize that our faculty affiliates and our trusted local partnerships remain our greatest assets for delivering world-class management education programs.

On a final note, it was gratifying to see the sizeable swell of Ross MBAs present – future managers and leaders, many with teaching experience and interest in applying their degrees, skills, and experiences to reforming education. While it is not unusual for Ross students to press their training in the direction of social impact (and WDI internships present one such opportunity), education needs more people who understand management principles and see access to quality education as a critical component of economy-building and a person’s holistic development. Education needs people who are driven to make a difference, who – like great teachers dating back to Socrates – begin by asking questions.

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