Hackernoon logoThe Classroom of the Future? A Total Disruption of Education by@e.p.m.vermeulen

The Classroom of the Future? A Total Disruption of Education

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@e.p.m.vermeulenErik P.M. Vermeulen

Business & finance professor, digital lawyer, restaurant owner, board member & traveler.

For a long time, I have believed that we need to disrupt education.
I sat in many meetings and had lots of conversations trying to persuade my colleagues of the need for change.
What we teach? Too much of the content has become irrelevant. It makes no sense to teach the same facts year-after-year. Students can get the same knowledge quicker via Google. Also, we shouldn’t focus on skills that machines can do better and faster.
How we teach? It makes no sense to stand at the front of the room “lecturing” (read: transferring facts) when students don’t automatically listen or engage. Sure, we can try to force engagement. But what does that achieve?
When we teach? A two-hour class every week at a fixed time? The digital world offers so many more opportunities to interact with students. Can’t we at least experiment with different formats?
And, don’t get me started about examinations. Encouraging students to pull “all-nighters” to memorize facts, just to pass a test. It seems so twentieth century.
Education needed a “bit” of creative destruction.
But, no one listened. Any victories were slow and hard-fought.
How quickly things have changed.

Everyone is Listening Now

I am the director of an international program. And even though we met lockdown requirements for the current cohort of students by putting our classes online, the question is whether a fully online — distance learning — version of the program will be enough to attract international students to enroll this fall?
Why would people pay money for purely online content?
I spoke to a concerned parent last week, and she made it very clear that she will not send her child to an online-only program.
“The interaction with the other students and faculty. The experience of living in a foreign country. These are the main reasons for paying tuition. Right now? I prefer to wait.”
She believed that the value of education is in the human contact and experience. Student-to-student and student-to-teacher.
I understand this thought.

The Classroom is Sacred

When it comes to where we teach, I must admit that I was always a bit old-fashioned.
Digital tools allow us to make teaching so much more interesting, but the “in-class” experience remains crucial. It makes teaching so much more fun for both the students and the teacher. The interaction. The discussion. The questions. The disbelief. The “a-ha” moments.
I always leave the lecture room energized and full of ideas and I hope my students have the same experience.
Teaching is performing. I never forget what one of my professors once told me:
“When you teach, you have to use all available tools. Whiteboard, audio/video systems, etc. This makes teaching entertaining and encourages interaction. Only then does the magic happen.”
So, when I was asked to record my classes five years ago, I was reluctant to do it. Don’t get me wrong. I love the digital age. I see the opportunities. I know the power of online videos and podcasts. But something prevented me from leaving the classroom experience behind.
For starters, I hated the quality of the in-class videos. The camera placed at the back of the lecture room. You couldn’t see the other participants. You could hardly see what was written on the whiteboard. And the sound? That was terrible. You couldn’t hear the discussion. You could barely hear me.
And there was more. A camera “in” the room killed the in-class dynamics. It was a distraction. At least, it changed the discussion. Students shut down where you want them to open up.
The camera failed to capture the magic. In short, it killed the magic.
A full, active and energized classroom has always been at the center of my understanding of education.

. . . Or is It?

Again. How quickly things have changed.
Nobody could have predicted this time last year that entire programs, all the courses, would move online in 2020. Teaching guidelines were updated in weeks (which used to take years). And, when the crisis is over, we will not go back to the lecture room immediately — if we will ever go back to the “sacred” lecture room at all.
And it turns out that the online experience is better than expected. It offers more freedom and flexibility. It saves travel time. The online connections are mostly flawless. Videos and online lectures get the job done. The existing online tools are adequate for providing (as a teacher) and consuming (as a student) the content.
Certain things are even better online. The formation of “break-out” sessions. The ability to chat and ask questions. Also, recording (parts of) the lecture is a huge benefit in a world of busy schedules.

“Post-Corona” Education

But the real question is, “what happens next?”
Going back to my program, we have four options. And I suspect these options apply to many organizations that have recently (and quickly) shifted to some form and remote work. And not just in education:
(1) Go Back to the Future. We cannot simply wait for the crisis to go away and hope to go back to the “old normal.” It’s very unlikely that things will just go back to the way they were before.
There are too many uncertainties/variables. What will governments do? Will they make the decision for us? And if countries lift lockdown, for example, will the schools be ready to meet the “social distancing” requirements? Would anyone be willing to come to campus or class?
(2) Skip and See. We could “skip” one year and spend the time to update the program (make it future proof). But for most schools skipping one year isn’t an option. Of course, there is the need for collecting the tuition fees. But there is more. Schools that decide to skip one school year run the risk of being disrupted by other initiatives and organizations that are better equipped to offer cheaper online courses and accredited programs.
(3) The New Normal. We could continue as we used to operate but just put the lectures online. Basically, what we are doing right now. The old model but shifted online.
But this approach has serious shortcomings. The “just move it all online” option doesn’t work in the long-term.
For instance, a conventional two-hour face-to-face lecture (with breaks) is terrible online. You miss the interaction, the body language, the show, the performance. Also, having a 15-minute online break isn’t the same as a traditional break where you mingle and interact with classmates or the teacher.
Another example is the traditional in-class/written exam. How to deal with cheating? There are “proctoring tools,” but students increasingly oppose them for being too invasive (fear of privacy). Moving a program online entails so much more than simply moving lectures from a lecture room to an online/virtual environment.
(4) Total Disruption. The final option is to act quickly and disrupt everything. Move fast and first.

We Must Change the Conversation

The winning schools will be ahead of the game. They will not only offer “traditional” online classes. They will reinvent everything. Here are some instant thoughts on the kind of debates we need to be having.
Game-Based E-Learning. Online lectures must be complemented by videos, Q&A sessions, quizzes, games. The gamification of teaching isn’t new. But similar to online classes, we have been talking about it for years without seeing a mainstream breakthrough.
Visual Learning. We must assume that the near future will be about social bubbles of fixed small groups of students and restricted class sizes. In this new environment, augmented and virtual reality will become mainstream in teaching. Think of virtual field trips, virtual group meetings, and virtual group learning. Teachers and students can meet and interact in an online environment using avatars.
There is no escape, we will spend a significant amount of time in these new virtual spaces. But there is no reason to get scared, I am not talking about a “Ready Player One” world.
In Steven Spielberg’s 2018 movie, everyone uses virtual reality to escape the dystopian real world. In a post-corona education environment, VR technology doesn’t replace the real world. Just the opposite. It will complement reality and opens doors to unprecedented and unexplored opportunities, making schools an immersive and accelerated learning experience.
Boot Camp. Traditional face-to-face and social interaction will still be relevant. As long as social distancing requirements apply, winning programs will offer regional boot camp and lab-sessions where students will meet, discuss, and apply what they have learned “online” on assignments in practice.
Using these strategies, we can create a digital educational experience that is more attuned to the young generation. It is also more relevant to a digital world.
This new educational experience must be built around shorter, more intense bursts of co-learning that put a premium on collaborative, creative problem-solving.
This may be hard for some people to accept, but education needs to learn from the success of social media and gaming companies and not simply dismiss them as childish or evil. For better or worse, we all now live in a world where our attention is driven by “variable rewards” — think of social media “likes” that pull us into constantly checking how our posts are being received. Or, the gaming concept of “juice” — the small prizes or achievements that games offer upon completion of a task and which gaming companies use to catch our attention and keep us playing more.
Education can’t fight these trends or ignore them. Rather, we must understand and embrace them. In the “post-corona” era, the classroom must become a manifestation of this new world.
After all, isn’t the real world the best place for students and teachers to engage, experiment, and co-learn?
The choice is now.
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@e.p.m.vermeulenErik P.M. Vermeulen

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Business & finance professor, digital lawyer, restaurant owner, board member & traveler.

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