I woke up last week, went through my morning rituals, and as I sat down for breakfast and my equivalent of reading the morning newspaper (reviewing a list of online articles prepared for me), I read the following opening line:
Just as Amazon has gone from selling books to exploring package delivery by drone, higher education in the digital age is radically rethinking the models by which it delivers its content, the leader of a higher education technology association told a Harvard Graduate School of Education(HGSE) audience on Wednesday. –Mark Sullivan, Harvard Gazette
Yes, many in higher education are “radically rethinking” what they do, but do we really want to start an article about rethinking education by focusing on the concept of content delivery? Is the delivery of content the essence of a higher education (or any education) experience in the present or future? Does a comparison between higher education and Amazon delivery help us make the mind shifts necessary to navigate the radical changes coming in higher education? The phrase “content delivery” suggests that the primary purpose of a higher education institution is for “professors” to deliver content to students. In an age where content is more readily available than ever before, content delivery is not worth the cost of tuition. What great professors do today is more about helping learners develop. If content delivery is the only goal, then we would be much better off increasing the budgets of public libraries, giving everyone a library card, and then providing curated lists of suggested readings and resources for study in various areas. Good Universities always have and always will be about much more than content delivery.
As the article continues, there a half-dozen examples of these changes. One example mentioned is Minerva University, a blended learning élite school experiment that combines rich experiential learning with a robust digital learning platform. I’m not convinced that the most radical part of Minerva is a new way of delivering content as much as it is a new way of immersing students in rich learning experiencing and leveraging learning analytics in interesting ways. The article also mentions MOOCs, 3D innovations, schools embracing competency-based education, and the impact of educational games and simulations. I fully agree that each of these add something valuable to the future of education; but again, each of these are about so much more than content delivery. The future of education is closely connected to what happens with the learner more than what is delivered to the learner. It is about learner engagement, transformational learning, adaptive learning, and most importantly, solid evidence of student learning. A “content delivery” mindset is not capable of taking us to such places.
I don’t want to be overly critical of the opening comparison between Amazon drone delivery and the future of education. All comparisons have benefits and limitations, and this one does work as we think about increasingly personalized learning experiences that adapt to the distinct challenges, prior knowledge, and progress of individuals. Nonetheless, I contend that we are well beyond thinking about education as mainly about content delivery. Content still matters. It will always be important, but I have no doubt that what does or does not happen with the learner is far more central to the most radical developments in higher education.