OP-ED Transformation in Education Jason Pfaff EDUKWEST

The Next Wave of Transformation In Education

Online education radically transformed the long held notions of time and space as it related to educational delivery.  We saw commercials highlighting a working parent attending an MBA class in their pajamas.  Schools promised compressed timeframes that allowed for a faster time to completion, and extreme flexibility was promised allowing us to fit classes into an already hectic life.  That wave is cresting and rolling back out to sea, but its legacy is that it forced everyone to re-think when and where learning could happen, and how fast a degree could be earned.  The next wave will challenge those same notions, and force us to rethink that paradigm again, but how exactly that happens could surprise you.

The world needs new models that allow us to offer human powered networks of learning that heighten experience and improve outcomes.

The ability to scale human powered engagement and construct robust learning networks will be foundational to the next 20 years of educational innovation.  No longer is it enough to learn asynchronously online or from software, people increasingly will want human powered engagement that an institution must deliver efficiently and at scale.  I want to share two bold ideas as an example of what is possible.

The Open Ended Undergraduate Degree

The current undergraduate paradigm in higher education is one that favors “front-loading” all the education one receives, and more importantly pays for, into a compressed time frame typically at the beginning of adulthood, or more recently, when one decides to pursue additional education in the interest of a career change or career advancement.  This begs one simple question, are we over educating graduates for the entry level jobs that will follow their degree?  Current estimates are that only about a quarter of graduates are in a field that their degree directly prepared them for.  Could students benefit from additional education as they progress through a career and find their way?  Could their educational pursuits unfold over time as they write their own story?  Simply put, can we do more to see a higher education as a support system we engage with over a lifetime as opposed to a short term goal pursued in one finite stage of life?  I believe an engineering student should be able to learn how to design an aircraft engine via virtual simulations alongside a seasoned technology professional that can offer leadership insights while learning the same technology to remain competitive at this stage of their career.  Current models allow for the technology, we need innovators to design the engagement oriented touchpoints.

Open Loop University is a bold proposal emerging from the Stanford2025 initiative. The provocative answers it offers to these questions and many others forms a coherent and exciting proposal for the future of higher education.  They envision a format where a student would earn 6 years of undergraduate education earned in short stints throughout a lifetime where experienced adults routinely return and engage with the academic community as they continually re-position their careers and ultimately, their lives.  Its a clean break from the current notion of alumni and what it means to be part of an academic community. Students return or “loop” back through the campus and all learners are enabled to learn across platforms and from a wide range of experiences.  Engagement with learning would be broadly distributed and students would cascade through robust networks at various points in their own unique journey.  After deeply pondering this model, and the meaningful possibilities, a typical mid term cram session starts to feel highly trivial.

It is a radical concept, but no more radical than the idea of offering fully online degrees was a mere 20 years ago.

Human Powered Engagement Offered Digitally

The opportunity to scale human powered engagement through digital tools has never been better, or more necessary.

The world is desperate to learn, and that need cascades across all ages.  Most exciting, there is a global drive to educate our young and level the playing field with respect to access to education.  But delivering high quality and engaging teaching is expensive, logistics are hard, and K-12 models that deploy technology and at the same time enhance the core user experience via higher levels of engagement are non-existent.  We have large school districts domestically like Detroit and Washington, DC that simply cannot find enough effective teachers that want to work there.  Someone has to do something to scale meaningful engagement through a best in class technology delivery.

So what about virtual animals powered by actual humans in real time that serve as an avatar for actual human based instruction for K-5?  Fun, intelligent, and engaging and easily delivered at scale.

Gerijoy has developed what I consider to be a transformational product to help engage seniors with dementia.  Take a few minutes and familiarize yourself with their concept and imagine the early education possibilities.  It is a fascinating and life changing approach to caring for one of our most valuable resources, our seniors. What can we learn from them that applies to another precious resource, our own children?

Seniors with dementia are a traditionally difficult to engage population, with a high level of needs and spontaneous reactions and there are simply not enough affordable and effective options currently to help them with what they need. Gerijoy is changing the world by leveraging technology in a way that empowers engagement, and I think anyone that thinks about high need populations can learn a lot from them.  It might seem like a crazy question, but I beg you to answer it; what are the possibilities offered by human powered avatars teaching one on one via a distributed platform where they can teach multiple students at once in a personalized fashion in real time on cheap tablets?

The backend of the technology can be as simple as a live chat platform with video interface.  The critical component though is the logistical levers that allow you to widely and affordably distribute human powered interaction.  Teachers and tutors are always available and ready to engage.  As students come on and off the platform, the technology allows you to balance the load in real time.  Because the avatar is the visual, and the voice is generic and powered through live chat, students feel consistency, even though they are being distributed through a network of available instructors.  Instructors are also able to balance multiple interactions in real time.  As they feed text into one interface and direct a student to an assignment, they can pick up an interaction with another.  While this requires focus and organization, it is no different than what instructors face each day in person.  The avatar actually improves upon that scenario.

Each student has a profile within the system that can be accessed by both educators and parents.  Parents have full transparency and are encouraged to follow their student’s progress in the portal.  In a tutoring setting, educators are concise and disciplined in ensuring all pertinent information is captured for each unique student.  Functioning in some ways like a simplified CRM, this allows each instructor to pick up where the last left off, and for students and parents to feel a seamless experience.

Implications for Virtual Tutoring

This is how you offer affordable and engaging support service in a way that supports stable and affordable delivery.

The expensive and inefficient 1:1 tutoring paradigm is effectively over.  Students pay a lot and costs are high due to the model being one student to one tutor.  That model persists today because parents and students like the attention and engagement, even though they hate the cost.  On the other hand, a digital platform, where we can add efficiency as students learn from software, has challenges with engagement for younger students.  Games are generic and students are easily bored and the right mix of skill level and fun is always an elusive balance.  Isn’t there a better way?

Implications Domestically

This is how you help districts with teacher and budget shortfalls.

Class sizes are growing and no school district has a meaningful answer for what that means.  They just hear the concerned feedback from parents.  Tablets are cheap and students are increasingly comfortable with digital interaction.  But parents are rightfully wary of purely digital learning environments.

Can’t we combine the best of each and deliver affordable solutions to school districts at the same time?

If I am a teacher and my class size continues to get larger, the idea that we can break into small groups at math time and I can have human powered and engaging interaction at each table is a welcome idea.

As a school leader, this allows you to blend the best of digital technology and human teaching in a way that deals with new budgetary realities.

On the back end, we are not deploying teachers per se, rather, these are tutors and teaching aides.  They are offered a competitive value proposition which includes working from home, flexible hours, and doing the teaching they love without the school related administrative headaches.  In many cases, education students could be employed in addition to new graduates looking for experience. The virtual nature of the work dramatically lowers overhead.

Global Implications

This is how you teach Algebra in Africa or English in China.

It’s really merely a summary of all the reasons above as to why this works in a global context.  Tablets are cheap.  Teachers for those physical locations are in short supply.  Demand for K-5 learning is growing at a rapid pace.  Additionally, live chat engines that translate to voice and eliminate accents are ever present, and Google Translate and Sphinx can manage the language translation in between.  All the tools are there, they just need someone with the courage to assemble them.

Cheap tablets, live chat software and purple dog avatars can improve the lives of students wanting to learn.  It really is that simple.  I think this might be how you change the world.

Surely, these are “crazy ideas”, but it is a crazy time.  The world is ready for change. If you are courageous and have an innovative approach, the world has never been more ready for you.  While no one will knock on your door and ask you to change the world, that doesn’t mean we don’t need you to get started.  I cannot wait to see what you are capable of creating.  Onward.

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Jason Pfaff is a recognized innovator in contemporary higher education. Most recently, he served as Vice President of Student Experience for Delta Career Education, a leading privately held provider of career oriented education. Jason's innovation portfolio lies at the intersection of massive data sets, predictive analytics, and a student centered mindset. Prior to Delta, Jason worked in a variety of roles at University of Phoenix, a leader in the widespread adoption of online learning. Prior to University of Phoenix, Jason served in a variety of roles at Saint Gregory's University, including leading the launch of its multi-media lab. Jason holds a degree in Letters from Saint Gregory's. When not working, he spends time with his beautiful wife Anna and their four lovely children.