Monday, August 5, 2013

Education and innovation as community

While responding to an interview with Michael Crow I started to wonder whether we're missing an even more important part of the discussion (and opportunity for institutions or higher education).  The debate frequently orbits pedagogical techniques such as the flipped classroom, adaptive content and assessment, new teaching methods, etc.  There is certainly interesting innovation happening in those areas, however, it may be the case that the most significant innovations and explorations that are happening revolve around community.

Consider a few examples:
  1. Online discussion forums from the online classes (AI class discussion, Udacity forums, Coursera forums, reddit study groups, etc.)
  2. Seed accelerators (Y Combinator, TechStars, 500 Startups, etc.)
  3. Startup incubators/schools (Gig Tank, 1871, Starter League, The Hub Boulder, and dozens of others)
  4. Open source software (Hadoop, NodeJS, Linux, or multitudes of others)
  5. Crowdfunding (Indiegogo, Kickstarter, or even Kiva
The mission, products, and or services of the things mentioned above span a wide variety of areas but one thing that is true of all of them, and is perhaps the most important true thing of all of them, is that they're building and fostering community.

You could see Y Combinator as a venture firm, or the Gig Tank as value added office space, or the Starter League as an online "graduate degree", or Kickstarter as a way to fund projects, but unless you've seen them first as community I believe you're missing an important element of what they are.  The value of the investment that you get from Y Combinator pales in comparison to the community of peers and experts (investment, management, technology, legal, etc.) that you are immersed in as a member.  The value of the educational material that you get from the Startup League is worth far less than the relationships with other students and the teachers.  In all cases the above resources are infinitely more valuable because of the community you become a part of by participating.

Institutions of higher education, I believe, are also firstly a community.  At their best they are a learning community of researchers, teachers, and students across a wide variety of disciplines collaboratively exploring new ideas/technologies and teaching students.  Like the examples above there is enormous value in that community.  Higher education is under pressure from many things including innovations in technology (adaptive learning, Khan Academy, Coursera, etc.) and the response often pushes back arguing about pedagogical effectiveness.  I don't believe engaging (exclusively) in debates about pedagogy play to the the strengths of institutes of higher learning.  Instead administrators should embrace new technology and pedagogical methods and play up their strengths as learning communities that foster motivation, collaboration, multi-disciplinary solutions, and perhaps better learning outcomes.

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