It is still a little difficult to really look ahead to education in 2021, given that 2020 was such a shock. No doubt about it. The routines we had, the things we took for granted, the ways we communicated and connected, and the way we studied and learned. All of these things were so ingrained that they formed habit loops, where the brain settles into a pattern of such familiarity that it doesn't question things and is almost asleep. All of these patterns changed almost overnight in March, and the shock and disorientation followed shortly after. Welcome to the conversations about the "new normal" and "build back better". Welcome to the blank canvas.
Blank is beautiful. So says Naomi Klein at the start of her seminal work "The Shock Doctrine". Klein wasn't talking about 2021, but rather the way in which governments can push otherwise unpopular reforms on people while they are in a state of shock from war, natural disasters, and the like. In Klein's book, she talks about the first stages of this shock as "depatterning". But surely the theory holds for the ability to effect positive change as well?
The question is, if we are given now the chance to wake up from the slumber of ritual and habit, what do we change? Nobody would have wished for a situation like this, but it is here, and it is now up to us to decide what to make of it. What truly belongs on our new canvas?
Look at the statues around you in the urban landscape. Who do we literally put on pedestals to confer on them attributes of grand heroism? The chances are, that you will find more politicians than professors; more soldiers than secondary school teachers. And yet, this year we have seen teachers worldwide, putting their own fears and exhaustion to the side, to stand up and serve their learners in a time when everything else was falling apart. When we were all figuring out the next steps, and trying to get our bearings, education in primary schools and high schools carried on. A report by NCES summarized that "teachers are spending their free time working with students so that they can simply access the digital classrooms. This additional help occurs only after the teachers have spent copious amounts of time planning lessons to keep students engaged and spending boundless energy to motivate students who are highly distracted." Faculty don't join the profession for material gain; that is certain. Learning guides do what they do so that they can make a difference, enrich lives, and make the future brighter. They will be the brightest color on our new canvas, and we must do everything we can to support that vibrancy and never dull it with micromanaged structures and endless new initiatives. We need that passion that makes learning a joy and not a chore. Teachers are heroes.
Take away the pattern of 9 am starts and invigilated exams. Did anyone enjoy that stuff anyway? Take away lockstep learning and synchronous classes as the central mode of "delivery". Take away "you need this because it's in the exam" and let us look at what is left.
The world is opening-up and learners are realizing that they actually have options of their own design. if Higher Education doesn't come to us, then fewer people may seek it out. If Google is offering a direct route into employment with its own certifications, then we can understand the appeal of employment without large tuition debt to pay. If universities are expecting learners to attend virtual classes regardless of their time zone, we can understand why many would opt for liquid learning instead. Even teachers are putting out their own courses directly on Udemy and Teachable. More and more people are finding a way around the traditional institutions. Higher Education has so much to offer but needs to evolve to stay relevant in a changing world.
Learners discovered useful skills around digital collaboration this year, as did teachers and institutions; accelerating the change to a more fluid learning environment. The scene is set for a positive change.
As we discussed in our recent episode of #geNEOusChats, for Higher Education Institutions to survive, they now really have to ask themselves "for what purpose" they operate the way they do. If the answer is about tradition, administrative convenience, or because that's the way things have always been done, well that simply won't do. The next splash of color on our new canvas is the "why" of the learner, and not the institution. What they need, who they want to be, and what the world needs them to be for a sustainable future; these are the lines that give form to everything else.
For education in 2021, we want education institutions to be places of big ideas and vigorous debate. An environment that is learner-directed; focused on supporting them to meet their goals, and not to fit into our boxes. This is not only possible, but it has already started to change.
The canvas is already looking vibrant. With only two components doing the talking so far, you may think it sparse, but any Spartan will tell you that silence should not be confused with empty words. Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together, and innovation comes not from noise, but from space and reflection. What comes next, when our old patterns have faded?
What is important to us as a society and why? What challenges do we need to face and how can education in 2021 best serve that? These are big questions that we thought we had years to answer, but the burden of response is now on us. Time has run out, and by returning to our core values, we will find the answers. In NEO Academy we have always found that sticking to our core values of trust and integrity has guided us through every difficult decision and we have no reason to doubt that now. There are challenges ahead, and we know that through creativity, collaboration, and a strong sense of purpose, we will get there. We hope that the more traditional education institutions out there can come through this stronger than ever, but we also know that changing traditions of teaching and learning which have endured for centuries, will not be easy. Whatever comes next in education in 2021 , we are here to support our partners in the ways that we can. If we do truly have to start again on the blank canvas, then let's do it together, and let's give it everything we've got! If this year taught us anything, it has taught us that we can do anything when we work together.
We wish a happy and purposeful 2021 to all of our partners, colleagues, and friends. We are looking forward to working with you to make 2021 the brightest color yet.