Searching For The Next Wave Of Education Innovation

I’m going to come right out and say it: few areas have been as hopeful and as disappointing as innovation in education.

Education is probably the single most important function in our society today, yet it remains one of the least understood, despite incredible levels of investment from venture capitalists and governments. Why do students continue to show up in a classroom or start an online course? How do we guide students to the right knowledge just as they need to learn it?

We may have an empirical inkling and some hunches, but we still lack any fundamental insights.

That’s truly disappointing. With the rise of the internet, it seemed like education was on the cusp of a complete revolution. Today, though, you would be excused for not seeing much of a difference between the way we learn and how we did so twenty years ago.

I have attempted to tease out these challenges in two previous essays on what the modern university still offers us and how we might learn in the future. One thesis that becomes more clearer over time is simply that we have ignored the more human aspects of education, replacing it instead with a “give ’em tablets and they will learn” mentality.

The next wave of education innovation won’t come from dumping technology on the problem. Instead, it will come from deeply engaging with people and empowering them to make learning all their own.

This past month, I talked to two individuals on opposite sides of improving education. Jodi Goldstein, who officially became head of Harvard’s i-lab startup incubation center this month, discussed the opportunities and challenges of bringing an entrepreneurial mentality into America’s oldest university.

Mattan Griffel, founder of One Month, a subscription-based online education startup, is coming at the problem from the other direction, rethinking online education in the aftermath of the MOOC explosion. “[Online education] has kind of overstepped its current effectiveness,” he argued, “and everyone is saying what is possible by painting this picture, but the tools haven’t reached that point yet.”

Together, these two trailblazers and many others like them are starting to form the next wave of education innovation – and potentially transform our societies in the process.

More Transformation Than Disruption

One interesting change in mentality coming from this new wave is a more mature view about what to do with the infrastructure of learning we already have. While the end of universities has been proposed by people like Peter Thiel, the reality is that the combination of status and endowments will ensure that many universities will survive and even thrive in the online age.

One interesting change coming to universities is simply that the timeframe of degree programs won’t be as fixed as they are today. As we walked through the i-lab’s new initiatives, Goldstein noted that Harvard’s Launch Lab, an incubator space for alumni teams, has already engaged with many students in just its first few months of operation. “There has been enormous interest and demand and we have seen such a strong community form with students leveraging each other,” Goldstein said.

Traditionally, students who graduated from the university would be forced to leave, but the Launch Lab ensures that they can maintain a connection to their alma matter. In its first year of operation, the Launch Lab had about 50 alumni teams join the 10,000 square foot space just off of Harvard’s campus in Allston, Massachusetts.

Griffel at One Month, speaking methodically through the changes coming to education, believes that large research universities won’t change much in the near future from new online education initiatives. “The four year degree as we know it symbolically is going to change very little over the next ten years.”

Instead, he sees a larger cultural shift to the same sort of continuous education that the i-lab is trying to instill in its graduates. “We know that skills are changing faster and faster, so teaching people how to learn new skills is really important,” Griffel said. That skills-based approach is also what he thinks One Month can do to help the current system. “We are not trying to replace the branding of Harvard. It is going to take a long time to see someone with One Month on a resume, which is why we are targeting more about the skills.”

One mistake that Griffel sees is in the extensive focus on students over teachers. While the language of education innovation often emphasizes students, empowering teachers may be as important or even more so for rethinking the way we learn. “We need to change the role of teachers. What kind of people do we consider teachers? How do we elevate teachers in society?” He thinks there is an opportunity to make them “rock stars” and bring new perspectives into the profession.

Rethinking Liberal Arts In A Technological Age

Few debates in education get teachers and students alike more worked up than the future of the humanities and the liberal arts. What use is there to English or art in a world where a twelve-week programming class can dramatically change your employment and salary outcomes?

Goldstein of the i-lab addressed that challenge of balancing the traditional role of the university with the more experiential programs of a startup incubator. “I’m glad that we are not trying to change the curriculum. Harvard is already really good at that, but we can sit along side that,” she said.

Instead, Goldstein sees an opportunity to have students act as ambassadors, learning the trade of entrepreneurship and then bringing that mental model back to Harvard’s other schools. Interestingly, only roughly 30% of students at the center come from the nearby business school.

Goldstein, who first joined the i-lab in 2011, has made it a mission to seek ways of engaging non-traditional entrepreneurs. That’s why the i-lab has moved beyond just offering incubation space and startup events to creating what she called “structured entrepreneurship opportunities.”

One example of this is a program run jointly with IDEO called the Future Lab, in which students go through a design-thinking curriculum developed by the storied design consulting firm while interning at startups and working on their challenges. Last year’s pilot program had 16 students.

Griffel at One Month is sanguine about the future of the liberal arts and believes that startups need to think deeply about how to foster critical thinking. “I think it is kind of like a fool’s choice,” he explained. “We are told that it is a spectrum: either vocational or deep critical thinking. But when you break down deep critical thinking, it is really just a set of skills that is taught.”

Liberal arts provides a framework for handling the constant changes in skills required to survive in industry. “With the liberal arts approach, we don’t know what we need to train people toward because we don’t know the jobs of the future,” Griffel noted. However, that doesn’t mean universities shouldn’t change their approach. “This becomes less relevant when education is a lifelong thing, rather than just a moment in college.”

Finding The Next Wave

Today, it seems clear that the fusion of online and offline learning is going to be at the core of improving education. Humans are social creatures, and placing them in front of a laptop and hoping that they are just going to soak up the knowledge is often asking too much.

At the same time though, we need to be shifting our culture about what the ideal form of education might be. Academic knowledge needs to be complemented with practical learning, a mix that can be customized to each student’s needs. Griffel believes that “We are trying to build this technology that highlights the best content and trying to shift, in the students’ eyes and everyone’s eyes, what is the role of education in your life?”

Whether through experiential learning with startups or skills-based learning through an online subscription, this next generation of education may be less disruptive and sexy than its immediate predecessor – but it also might just work.