Imagine enrolling with an educational institution for a course that lasts a lifetime, with a curriculum covering multiple disciplines that expands near-instantly as new knowledge becomes available.
Imagine a society that provides every citizen with lifelong learning and guaranteed access to the knowledge they need to compete in our rapidly changing, increasingly globalised, economy.
Is this a socialist fantasy? Or is it the inevitable future of education?
In my last post I wrote about whether it’s better to be a specialist or generalist when it comes to choosing your career path. Most of us don’t get the choice when it comes to academic pursuits — we are forced into early specialisation based on exam grades, teacher recommendations, parental expectations and our own teenage-brain influenced preferences.
Aged 14 I narrowed down my academic choices to ten subjects, at 16 this became four, at 19 I entered the arguably archaic British university system to study one single solitary area of knowledge. History, in my case. A subject which allows for freedom of thought and analysis but little cross-pollination with non-humanities subjects.
Since university I have found out, almost by accident, that I have a deep interest in statistics. In another life, perhaps this would have been a viable academic route for me. Alas, to study this subject as a second undergraduate degree (if I could self-fund the £9k per year fees without a loan), I would have to go all the way back to post-16 education take a Maths and Statistics A-Level to meet the course entry requirements.
Forcing children to narrow their educational choices so young is one of the biggest failings of our current education system. It may have suited 20th century society where people studied well trodden academic paths that led to clearly defined careers for life, but it is no longer fit for purpose in the multi-career, highly abstracted knowledge economy of the 21st century.
I am not the first person to point out the multiple disadvantages of the current system and it seems that the tide of educational trends are shifting in our current digital-first world.
Knowledge used to be owned and guarded by academic institutions. Access was permission based, governed by a system based on a supposed meritocracy. You have to enter into the system and follow a defined structure designed to teach and test your knowledge to gain an externally recognised qualification.
This system is being fundamentally challenged by the rise of Massive Open Online Courses and freely available online teaching material that covers almost every subject.
Education is unbundling and democratising, quickly. You can now attend a MIT class, from anywhere in the world, for free. You can learn to code using multiple free online courses. Universities, for the moment, retain a monopoly on “accredited” qualifications, but this is about to change.
The UK government has long pursued a policy of turning students into consumers through raising tuition fees. As the pandemic forced university education online, student consumers rightly started to ask about the value for money they are getting from a remote course. When faced with the choice between paying for a “traditional” academic qualification that is delivered in exactly the same way as a much cheaper MOOC, will future students care less about the institutional name tag and more about the quality and relevance of the educational content?
Employers are also no longer solely judging candidates based on where they went to university and the calibre of degree they received. Deloitte famously ensures that interviewers no longer have access to details of an applicant’s school or university and PwC has scrapped UCAS points as an assessment tool for its entry process.
Personally speaking, I am often much more impressed by someone who has shown the ability to self-learn and complete training outside of the standard education system. I am a Marketer by trade, despite never studying it formally at an academic institution. I have managed to build my career based on self-taught skills and on-going courses, including a certification designed by Google.
In the beginning of this post I set out my vision for a world where education is freely available and on-going learning across all subjects is encouraged throughout the lifespan of every citizen.
We are reaching a point where this is no longer a fantasy. Digital education is a movement that is still in its infancy and it will become the norm to access high-quality education cheaply and globally.
This brings me to the fun part of the thought experiment — if we could all continuously study, what would be on the curriculum? There are the obvious work-related things — we might want to provide everyone with the opportunity to learn how to code or take on a second language. We would have the ready made infrastructure available to retrain workforces left behind by changing economic tides.
The ability to unlock yourself from a single academic focus would also provide a wonderful opportunity to foster inter-disciplinary thinking and cross-pollination of ideas.
We bang on a lot about the importance of diversity of thought in industrial environments, but imagine the benefits that this could bring to knowledge as a whole. Could an astrophysicist challenge rigid institutional dogma by bringing scientific methods to the historical discipline? What perspectives could a social worker bring to the world of biology?
Multiple educational opportunities across the human lifespan would also empower people to study and learn for the sake of it. Would you have chosen different subjects at school or university if it wasn’t your single shot at defining your future career prospects? I certainly would have thought about the choice differently.
Hi, I’m Bethan. I’m a marketer, tech enthusiast and curious mind. This post first appeared in The Brave Newsletter where I explore ideas around resilience, adaptability and robustness in the 21st century.
Previously published at https://thebrave.substack.com/p/14-the-degree-of-a-lifetime