Business & finance professor, digital lawyer, restaurant owner, board member & traveler.
Teaching is different in a digital age. I am convinced.
And discovering how it is different is always exciting. It is one of the joys of being an educator.
Take last week.
Over the past few years, I have spent the first weeks of the year teaching an intensive course at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
This year’s course is on how the digital world is changing the way we live, work and do business.
The course covers four topics:
The goal is to help students understand the opportunities and challenges of a digital age. It is important that the next generation understands that our digital world cannot be understood with traditional models. Doing so leads to misunderstanding, confusion or worse.
There is a lot more to say about the actual content of the course and I will do so in future posts. But what has been particularly interesting this year is how a simple change in the approach to teaching helped clarify how education can play a valuable role in inventing the future.
In the past, it always made sense to start my courses with the latest technological trends and developments. In the first classes, we dived into several different technologies. This way of teaching had always been interactive with lots of discussion.
But this year, we tried something different.
Rather than begin by introducing the technology, I instead started with some “personal stories”. I explained the real-world challenges that I face in my daily life as a business executive. I explained the impact of new technologies on my work in a large corporation. I gave examples of some of the problems we face integrating technologies into existing ways of working.
The result was to trigger immediate discussion amongst all participants. A mixture of questions, solutions, criticisms and proposals. Everybody was involved. The energy in the room was tremendous.
In short: we were creating something.
We were searching for solutions to the problems of today and in doing so we were working to invent models for a better future.
It was this sense of shared creativity that made it such an unforgettable experience. Something magical was happening in the room.
This might all sound a little over-dramatic, but I really felt that we were engaged in building a better world. We were thinking “out of the box”, sharing and learning. And we were doing this together, as a group.
There are several reasons why I think this approach worked
For a start, young people don’t want or need the technologies explained to them in detail. They don’t need the “facts”.
For instance, the group already knew about blockchain and — if not — they can get up to speed very quickly. Transmitting facts about technology (or anything else, for that matter) is not where education can add real value in a digital age where the facts are so readily available. Rather, we need to focus on how the technology can be deployed and what that means for our future.
Moreover, classrooms are increasing diverse places. The advantage of a group with different backgrounds, either in terms of nationality or prior experience (e.g. communications, technology, law, marketing, air traffic control) is that everyone can bring their own unique perspective that adds something to the discussion.
Of course, the risk with an open-ended and multi-disciplinary discussion of this kind is that it isn’t always easy to direct or control. And although we did stray off topic, it never became chaotic or irrelevant. And, it is true, that some of the solutions we came up with, even though they looked brilliant at first sight, already existed or could easily be shown to make no sense at all.
But for me, this is all just part of the process of co-creation in an uncertain world. We need to have this experience of “trial and error” in order to arrive at the best solution.
What matters is the process of building-reviewing-criticizing-iterating.
And this must be done in a safe space that is open, inclusive and respectful.
The whole experience reinforced my belief that in-class problem-solving is the future of education. Particularly in a fast-changing networked world characterized by constant technological disruption.
There are several reasons why this observation is important. Here are three.
Recently, we see a trend towards “distance learning” and “online teaching”, and there is a lot of pressure inside universities to develop these new educational models. This is hardly surprising, given the educational possibilities that network technologies are creating. And, no doubt, such trends are important, particularly when they contribute to educational inclusion.
Nevertheless, in-class “teaching” must never disappear. Sure, in many cases, it may need disrupting. But, in a digital age, where teamwork and the open exchange of ideas have become more important than ever, we have to preserve such a learning environment and the unique experience that it offers.
Schools and universities have always been places where we can discuss things in a more flexible and less stringent setting. But such safe spaces become even more important in a digital age. Individual educators and educational institutions all need to recognize the value of providing places where people can work, learn and create together.
Education needs to create opportunities that allows this kind of interaction to happen.
After all, we all have to study new technologies in order to become smarter. Not only to better identify, manage and mitigate potential risks, but also to take full advantage of the tremendous opportunities that new technologies offer across all fields of social life.
That might all sound obvious. But anyone who is familiar with educational institutions will know how there are many managerial pressures — accreditation, for instance — that can easily reduce freedom and flexibility in the classroom.
My own feeling is that in recent decades university education, in particular, has become increasingly “irrelevant” for students. Potential employers feel that graduates have learned little that is useful for the realities of work today. Many professors even seem to share this sense that what they do no longer really matters.
In-class problem-solving of the kind described here can provide one way of making the educational experience more productive and relevant for all stakeholders.
The students in Minneapolis/St Paul certainly invested in the process and felt ownership over what they had created. The solutions were meaningful to them, both for their assignment, but also — more importantly — their futures.
I know the experience felt more valuable for me. I feel I learnt more as well, and I will incorporate what I learnt the next time that I teach.
And, perhaps most importantly, I also believe that this approach is more relevant for potential employers and society in general.
If you work on technology directly, it makes sense to focus relentlessly on developing that technology. Think of this as invention.
But for those of us working in business or other professions, the real issue is how to integrate disruptive technologies into existing patterns of working. It is about understanding the meaning of technology and then designing or creating a better future built around that technology.
This is the daily reality of working in a world characterized by profound technological change.
Re-creating this experience is where the real value of education now lies.
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