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Rigid education fails to make the grade
Education system needs to get flexible but vested interests may block essential change...
Written in a coffee shop in Woodbridge, Suffolk, on a rainy summer's day and dispatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi service.

Education and employment have always changed with technology but there now seems to be a growing disjoint between the two.

There is an old and somewhat cruel joke that seems increasingly applicable. It comes in various guises along the following lines:

A science graduate asks, "Why does it work?"
An engineering graduate asks, "How does it work?"
An accounting graduate asks, "How much will it cost?" ?
While a liberal arts graduate asks, "Do you want fries with that?"

How did this circumstance come about? It reflects, in part, the proportion of unemployed students 12 months, or more, after graduation. And because much of the West is now creating more degree-qualified people than ever, the problem seems to be getting worse.

Unfortunately, large numbers appear to be unable to find employment in the field of their choice, while vacancies in science, engineering and technology go unfilled due to the lack of suitable candidates. What a travesty.

Companies report that their growth is being limited by a shortage of qualified people and many have to recruit from abroad. This failing is perhaps even worse. Developing and underdeveloped nations need bright minds to support their advancement but often find their talented youngsters being siphoned off by Western economies.

Sadly there appears to be no quick fix. Dare I say a culture that is against science, technology and engineering is now well established with precious few champions and role models in our schools or visible in society.

In my dealings with youngsters I find them as bright as ever but often without any predisposition for a life of discovery, creativity and problem solving. Why?

There are many factors of course, but here, I think, is a major one: in the old education system it was not unusual for problems to require five, 10, 15, 20, or more steps to get to the solution.

Successive watering down of the curriculum for political purposes has produced tick-box formats with a solution in one, two or three steps. Should a problem involve five steps, the reaction is that it is too difficult or too much like hard work.

Now here is the paradox. Those same minds play computer games where tenacity is essential and the steps to achieve success might number 30 or more. But the players trained themselves, were unfettered, and free to develop their own strategy.

In contrast, the education system put them into a straitjacket and told them what and how to do everything.

Now here is another paradox. In the computer world the players

expect tough competition and failure. To succeed they assume that they will have to work hard and persist, which appears not to be the case in education.

Probably the only solution is through the gateway of technology, but I'm not sure there is, or ever will be, a silver bullet. More likely, we will increasingly be playing catch-up but I do think it is clear that the following will be necessary:

  • The demise of the sage-on-the-stage model with thousands of mediocre teachers delivering the same material in the same format at almost the same time. They will have to give way to a few special, and networked, individuals who are in the premier league of tutorage in their field.
  • Local or online guide-at-the-side cadres of tutors will be required for individual student support.
  • Many complex concepts will have to be augmented by online animations, movies and simulations.
  • Stronger connections to the reality of industry and commerce with more work experience pre-graduation.
  • New forms of student and academic networks will be required to advance the speed of subsumption and understanding.
  • In some areas virtual experiments and laboratories in the kitchen will suffice, while in others the real thing will remain the only option.
  • University attendance will have to become more dispersed in time and space and more flexible. Attending 30 universities during a single degree programme should be possible.
  • Extended, sporadic study periods and conventional student programmes will be needed.

I could extend this list but I think we might guess that the biggest problem will be the vested interests of academics, institutions, the funding models of student and system.

During my life I have seen education ebb and flow from the rigidity of grades and subjects, to flexible options, and back again.

Up to the age of 15 my schooling was rigid but between the ages of 16 and 30 things grew very flexible. For example, I was able to take exams without attending courses, I could attend courses without strict justification or academic support.

During my years at university there were mandatory courses, and then to my great joy I found individual courses and lectures where I could just sit in as a guest. This situation came to a head one year when 12 courses were on offer and we had to choose eight to be examined in. So I attended all 12.

If there is a moral here it is that I set great store in those invisible lectures and courses I attended. Untold doors to understanding were opened for me, and the cross-subject linkages have proved invaluable throughout my life.

Such a serendipitous approach might constitute the future for student populations to come, but online, open to change and with continual updating. The only snag I can see? As ever, the inability of people to change fast enough.