The Danger of Dismantling (Digital) Learning

More than once or twice in the last few weeks I’ve been on the defensive about education, particularly in dialogue with industry folks in the digital sector. So here’s a bit of a brain dump.

There’s a problem at the moment – but it’s not quite as straight forward as you might think, and there’s certainly some misinformation fuelling some of the traffic – and decisions being made by young people, parents and employers are to some extent being informed by some significant propaganda proposed by a powerful vocal group whose interests may only reflect their personal short-term financial gain and not long-term issues.

Why did I go to University? I can’t remember why now. I know there was an expectation that I would go, and that I was going to be a rare thing because only about 5% of the population went to University. Fast forward more than 25 years and around 45% of the population now go on to study at university level. Whatever you think about fees, loans, debt and so on, there has been a marked increase in access to higher education – some folk think that’s not required and that it’s a waste. Other people think it’s only fair that anyone who wants a bash at Uni should be able to have a go.

Many people have talked about declining standards (usually the same people who think GCSEs have got easier – until they are asked to do some of the questions themselves: just you have a go at that GCSE maths paper if you’re not a mathematics person and you’ll see how demanding it is).

Standards haven’t declined – what’s changed is the range of performance, and also the level of work that’s used to get people the education that works. Compared to my time at Uni, there’s a massive amount of work that goes into supporting learners – staff who are trained to teach, who are up to date in their field, who have practitioner experience, who spend time with industry as well as engage in research.

As a practitioner who works in a University, I’ve spent a long time constantly updating and improving the experience and the knowledge that we pass onto students. My grads go out with skills they can use instantly as well as talent they can draw upon for decades to come. One thing hasn’t changed – and that’s what University has always been about – and that is that graduates are also ‘trained thinkers.’

Something I often hear – “University isn’t preparing graduates for work” – often by people who haven’t seen what I’m doing. Often by people who came from a University a long time ago. What they mean to say is – “Some CVs we have looked at don’t say that person X knows how to use software Y”.

University isn’t about learning how to use software Y. University should mean that person X will be able to use any software in the future, because they have some deeper, intrinsic thinking that allows them to adapt to any new situation. As a trained thinker, they will be ready to adapt to a situation, develop a new behaviour, acquire a new skill quickly when it is needed – because they have this deeper grounding that means they can do this for the rest of their working lives.

Which brings me on to the danger of the new panacea – apprenticeships.

Plenty of lads that I knew at school went on to do apprenticeships when I went off to Uni – particularly in an oil-industry town I came from. I’d come home and they’d be showing me their new motorbikes and cars. They had cash, skills and everything even a few years after I graduated – they were clearly well off and they had skills.

Then the arse fell out of their world – new technology, change in the law, whatever. Suddenly they were out of jobs. Their skills were highly specific, very linked to a technology which a disruptive event rendered obsolete. And to put it bluntly, they struggled to get work because there were engineering graduates who had not only got experience in the work place, they had also got the ‘trained thinker’ grounding that made them adaptable and ready. The guys who had been apprentices had no chance despite having been on some of the most excellent apprenticeships ever.

The danger of apprenticeships is that some are being sold as “an alternative to University” to people who would very reasonably benefit from a University experience. The use of scaremongering language regarding debt and fees is prevalent.

I don’t doubt the value of an apprenticeship but there is very little information on the drawbacks of such an approach – for all stakeholders, especially the apprentice. The curricula around the programmes is dominated by experiential learning of repetitive, operational tasks.

There is some doubt about the validity of the knowledge. I spoke to one young apprentice last week who was unhappy, because he felt that he was learning about one way of doing things – the company way – yet he had heard from people elsewhere that they were doing it differently, but he was not being exposed to that experience because “that’s not how it is done where I work.”

Where is this all going?

  • Universities are changing so it’s important that you base any remarks and opinions on the modern, contemporary University and not the mid-range 20th century white tower you may remember.
  • Apprenticeships, especially in the digital domain, have yet to be proven so they cannot be a panacea
  • More needs to be done at 16 – 18 so that people understand what they should be going to University for and there are plenty of people who should not be going to University.
  • Companies pick their apprentices – whereas students choose their University. That has an impact on outcomes.
  • In all cases, the raw material (the apprentice or student) is the most significant factor in the equation. There are students who just aren’t that good – and it’s no reflection on what University experience they’ve had – but they can wing it for 3 or 4 years. A duff apprentice won’t last long in a firm so you’ll only ever see the innately good ones succeed. I get judged on the raw material whether I like it or not.

What’s clear is that there is a massive sea change in education. Unfortunately it will be at some young people’s expense either way.

NEXT TIME – the difference between education and training