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Summer holidays drawing to a close; exam results published. Time to reflect on another academic year ahead and what the future holds for education.

As school and university running/rebuilding costs come under pressure and technology advances, can education in custom-made buildings continue indefinitely? Can we make the cultural shift to virtual secondary and tertiary education?

When many school buildings need replacing, and universities are used few months of the year, there’s real tension between two extremes. On the one hand, quality teaching and learning in state-of-the-art schools and universities; on the other, what taxpayers are prepared to pay when technology can provide much education.

There’s no universally agreed definition or benchmark of education beyond ‘the process of educating or teaching’ (Webster’s), but we all know what we mean. Straight delivery of knowledge, skills and information is outdated. It’s a voyage of discovery, connections and applications, encompassing perception, understanding, communication and aspiration.

Schools Tinker

Schools endlessly experiment with length of days and lessons, curriculum planning, homework and uniforms, testing. Some children are taught at home for various health or behavioural reasons, and in some parts of the world like Australia, geography dictates that schools are on air.

Home tuition in Britain is increasing as many parents feel schools don’t offer what they want their kids to learn. They have that right, but depriving them of social intercourse is a high price. And that’s the point about education down the line. We need young people to relate, play and work together; our society depends on it.

However, distance learning is well established in areas from Canada to Africa at school and university level. Many British universities sell online courses, including lectures/seminars, assessing and discussions. The oral tradition, passing things down generations is alive and flourishing among peoples with no literary tradition.

Some Are Revolutionary

‘Spaced learning’, short, sharp intense periods of learning around 8 minutes, interspersed with different periods of other, physical activity have produced interesting results in children’s learning, concentration, motivation and memories. In other places, lessons can run over several days to explore theory and practice, deepen understanding and minimise disruption.

It seems that the one-size-fits-all in schools may be ending. So, go a step further. Aside from sports, creative arts and social training, are school buildings needed as we know them in the future? When today’s learners experience dozens of jobs and evolving, exponentially-changing technologies in their lifetimes, radical thinking is demanded now.

Universities the Same

By the same token, at university level, squabbles about tuition fees, student loans/debt, quality of degrees are a side show. The real issue is how much can be saved and delivered better online into students’ own homes, rather than them going away for three years?

Correspondence courses still exist, offering courses in every subject under the sun, though they have an air of the past. They were around in Britain for 200 years, improving minds as people gained qualifications and enjoyed hobbies. The development of postal services ensured reliable return of assignments. Home study chimed with the Victorian ethic of self-improvement and hard work, fed by evening classes, too.

Founded in 1969, the Open University delivers distance courses to 180,000 students, of which 25,000 are outside the UK. They have had over 3 million graduates. It has been copied around the world, from Philippines to Israel to Hong Kong. It’s an efficient, user-friendly method for all ages/abilities to access learning.

It’s a successful, beneficial socio-economic model, runs up little student debt and allows students to learn at their own paces. It employs fewer than traditional teaching (though this is also in the negatives column). Less bad student behaviour is a plus for many.

The downsides – no social benefits from being physically away from home, no new experiences, none of the inventiveness that comes with teams working/solving together -must be realised, though Summer Schools mitigate that to some extent. Student-dependent local economies also feel the pinch.

‘Lifelong Learning’ is a buzz term: you never stop learning. The University of the 3rd Age (U3A) is a testament to the commitment of older people to learning together in social groups. ‘Senior surfers’ have become as accomplished at harnessing technology as other ages (despite stereotypical oldies who refuse to grasp new things).

However education pans out, we can be sure that few things will remain the same as they are today.

Image courtesy of Robin Good