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Part 3 in my Top 10 Trends of 2014 series

One of the challenges of pulling together this year end series is that education technology doesn’t break down neatly into ten separate trends. “The Business of Ed-Tech” bleeds into the politics of ed-tech, for example.

The next few posts in this series really underscore this, as I discuss – broadly – the state of higher education with regards to education technology. It’s hard to extract what happened this year into distinct trends. And it’s hard to only talk about ed-tech. To do so, I fear, would lose much of the context of why education technology has such a powerful influence on the stories we told ourselves about colleges and universities in 2014. (The same applies for K–12, no doubt.)

It would be easy, I suppose, to invoke the decades old “Baumol’s cost disease” – plenty of folks do – to explain the problems that education faces in terms of costs and labor productivity. To frame things this way does make an emphasis on technology somewhat understandable – technology is meant to make things more efficient and less expensive. (Of course, we can debate whether or not it actually accomplishes this and why efficiency would be a goal in learning.)

The rising cost of higher education has been something I’ve been tracking in my year-end posts since 2011 when Peter Thiel famously described all this as a “higher education bubble.” That is, the cost of higher education is overly inflated, and as such college isn’t “worth it.” This is a narrative Silicon Valley likes to tell, and it’s one we continue to see see parroted in a number of high profile venues, including this year’s documentary Ivory Tower.

It’s a story that is experienced by so many people – those of us burdened by student loans, those of us who are un- and underemployed, those of us who thought that if we went to college and got a degree that we’d have access to a better life. It’s a story we were told and we believed. And it’s a story that, in today’s economy, just doesn’t hold true. Some 40 million Americans now have some student loan debt, and the amount of that debt debt continues to climb (and we’re starting to recognize the ripple effect that that has on the economy).

College tuition continues to increase. The pressure to go to college grows as well.

But what does it mean to call higher education “a bubble”? How do we respond – culturally, politically?

You could respond by reading all of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s work. No really, you should do that.

Instead, it seems as though one of the dominant responses involves a change in our expectations about what education is and what education does and what higher education – a credential – means.

Increasingly, education is reframed to be all about “jobs.” Education is about “skills” (particularly “job skills”).

If you listen to the stories that industry tells about education – particularly the tales out of Silicon Valley – we’re in the middle of a major “skills shortage.” Schools aren’t training (the use of that word “training” is key) students correctly or adequately. And so, as the story goes, school must change. They must change to meet the needs of industry.

That’s meant to be the theme of this post: “skills.”

But before I turn to it, I’m going to provide a little more context for the state of higher education today. (Okay, a lot of context.) Much of this doesn’t have to do directly with ed-tech. But it’s context. And it matters.

Read the rest of my 5500 words on "skills" here.

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Audrey Watters


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