The Next Education Revolution

07/10/2015 05:39 pm ET | Updated Jul 10, 2016

I just returned from the University of West Indies in Trinidad, where I gave a talk on best practices in teaching and learning in higher education. And I'm about to head to Australia to talk on a related issue about community engagement and the "next education revolution."

What strikes me is how similar the issues are in such truly different places and higher education systems. Everyone is debating the role of colleges and universities in our society.

I guess this shouldn't surprise me. We are, I have been arguing this past few years, in the initial stages of the transformation of how we think about and "do" teaching and learning, and such changes truly have no borders. Technology is really good at routinizing and replacing what we used to think of as humans-only kind of jobs. The rise of digital learning technologies will nudge us towards the exact same thing in our universities. We already see the outlines of this and we will see this ever more as higher education figures out how to best incorporate particular technologies to make the educational process more efficient and effective.

I know. I know. Many of us have already become jaded about such "disruption." Online learning. MOOCs. Competency-based education. Yawn. Whatever. It is as if every new technology is just old wine in new bottles as the technology hype cycle swings us from the excitement of inflated expectations to the disappointment at the depths of the trough of disillusionment.

This time it's different. It's different because technology (through just-in-time feedback, adaptive learning platforms, integrated and intelligent cognitive tutors, etc.) now allows us to deliver a more-or-less "good enough" education. Put otherwise, no specific teaching model - face-to-face, hybrid, or online learning - is definitively any better. (Yes, the research is there to prove this.) Mind you, none of these models may be great if all they do is replicate the "transfer of information" model of education. But at least you can now learn as much or as little as you want either through an in-seat lecture or an online class.

But the potential of this technology at its best is that we can break the "iron triangle" of higher education: cost, quality, and access. It used to be that you could only adequately do two out of three: minimize costs and increase access, for example, and expect that quality will diminish. But this is no longer the case as universities begin to increase access through technological solutions for minimal or no long-term costs and maintain quality (however we may define that). In other words, all bets are off as the "unbundling" of faculty work, the modularization of the curriculum, the outsourcing of teaching, and many other related technological byproducts force us to ask a very basic question: what's the point of the university?

We in the United States are thus not the only ones having this conversation. We are all, whether we realize it or not, discussing and debating what we mean by "education," by our vision of the role of universities in our society, by what it means to prepare students to become thoughtful and engaged citizens.

This is exciting in many ways. For we actually know a lot about how teaching and learning works and, in an ideal world, can begin talking about how to move from the "flipped classroom" model of education to a "flipped university" model. But the scary part is that technological advancements keep coming and budget pressures never cease. There is thus no simple way to press the "pause" button and resolve the deep and difficult questions of how do we do it right.

This is why I believe we are in the midst of the next education revolution. Change is coming whether we like it or not and the only real question in front of us is what we are going to do about it.