September 28, 2020

If you designed a classroom, would it be a room?

Educator and futurist Graham Brown-Martin poses the above question in his thought-provoking essay Why don’t you design a school? (You can read the essay by clicking here)

What would your response be? Would the classroom you designed have walls?

I’m quite certain that if Google’s recent announcement about their Genius courses is anything to go by, then if it was a university that I was designing, I’d be holding back on the sandstone order.

Google has recently attracted world-wide attention with its new “Google Career Certificates” program, an initiative that some suggest is designed to disrupt tertiary degree programs. Their program consists of a collection of six-month, online courses in the technology area that will cost a fraction of a traditional tertiary education.

I’m not suggesting that per se, this program poses an immediate threat to universities as we know them, but just maybe it is a portent to the future of post-secondary education.

It may well be worth noting that Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, Kent Walker has announced Google will be treating these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles.

And that Google has reportedly established a consortium of over fifty employers including big players like Walmart and Bank of America with whom they have invited their graduates to share their course information.

Or that the two courses already launched under the program have been completed by almost 640,000 students with 85% of them providing raving 5-star reviews.

It is not that Google’s foray into online learning is innovative in itself. There has been a plethora of providers like Coursera, EdEx and Udemy in this space for years now, offering courses ranging from short, general-interest programs to fully fledged degree and post graduate programs affiliated with the world’s best universities.

However, these events suggest that maybe it’s time now to consider that a standardised degree program done sitting in sandstone towers at the start of your working life might not cut it as a life-long meal ticket anymore.

Not when workplace skill requirements are changing at an ever- increasing rate to the extent that management author Justin Bariso is suggesting that it’s better for companies “to hire for character and personality, and then teach skills.”

Nor that when it comes to learning opportunities, online technology has liberated us all from the previously limiting constraints of time, place and space.

And what about secondary schools? Do Google’s actions have implications for their future?

Without going into it too deeply here, my feelings are that because of strong secondary-tertiary associations, there are significant implications for secondary schooling as well.

After decades in the independent school sector, I am firmly of the opinion that in the minds of most students and parents, the primary goal of an independent secondary school education is access to tertiary education.

I recall that when my career first took me to New South Wales, just how astonished I was at the huge influence that the importance of HSC results was in the minds of students, parents and staff. One of the Sydney daily newspapers publishes its own version of league tables based on HSC results and amongst many Sydneysiders the ranking in those tables is sacrosanct when it comes to evaluating the worth of individual schools.

So much for a holistic education!

It does give me some comfort to witness universities now making offers to students before they even sit for the HSC and the use of student portfolios by world leading universities that take student personal characteristics like character, inter-personal communication skills and community service into account.

But be all that it may, tertiary education is very important to the aspirations of most Australians. Over the past twenty years, the share of the Australian adult population that hold at least a bachelor degree has tripled, reaching 27.3% in 2018. Currently, around six-in-ten senior school leavers attend university by the age of 22, up from a little over a half in 2010.

With secondary and tertiary education so inextricably linked then, disruption in one has repercussions for the other. As the winds of technological change blow through the worlds of learning and work, my prediction is that the learning that occurs at both levels will increasingly become, in Brown-Martin’s words, a “self-directed activity of discovery and a habit that lasts a lifetime.” And if this occurs, there will be a diminishing need for the buildings of grandeur that house many of our independent schools and universities.