On a cold, rainy February evening in 1990, your friend invites you over to watch a movie with her. It starts at 8:30 pm and you're already late because you got held up with family drama.
You run outside and try to hail a cab, but they're all full. Finally one stops and 20 minutes later, dripping wet, you arrive at your friend's house.
You missed the start of the movie, and it's on TV so no rewind this time. It's still enjoyable, and you really want to watch part 2 while you're in the mood, but you'd have to go to the video shop and it's still raining.
You'd like to know more about the movie and the backstory, but the movie itself is all you have, and there's really nobody to ask.
Tell this story to someone who is 19 years old today, and they will find it quaintly amusing. In the age of Uber and Netflix, services come to you when you want them, and you are in full control.
But yet, this same 19 year old has just started studying at University and, exciting as it might be, she has just as little control in this as our soggy protagonist did on that rainy February evening in 1990. Allow us to explain why.
The tyranny of the 9am lecture
Like our 1990's TV movie, University lectures and tutorials have a fixed schedule. If you miss the class, you might be lucky enough to get notes from a classmate, but the chances are that you're catching up on content on your own.
If you can easily afford to take 4 years out to get a degree, you either live somewhere that supports you, such as Iceland or the Czech Republic, or you are from a socio-economic background that can make it possible. For many, things are more complicated. According to a recent article in the Washington Post:
"Colleges and universities (in the USA) have long struggled to meet the needs of the estimated 4.3 million undergraduates, — about one in five — with children. Few have policies and facilities to support student parents and even those that do often find their resources stretched thin".
For these parents, juggling their responsibilities at home with an inflexible schedule at University is putting such an extra burden on them.
It's much the same story with students who have to work. In a country like the USA, where tuition fees are increasingly prohibitive, Mental Health America estimates that more than half of college students have to work to pay tuition.
Inflexible, synchronous learning is great if you can put your life on pause for 4 years, but this is just not an option for so many of us.Lockstep is for soldiers, not studentsIn the age of binge-watching a series on Netflix, it is funny to think back to the time when we had to walk to the video store if we felt like watching part 2. Nowadays we can watch whatever we feel like on the device that suits us, in a place we feel comfortable, and a time we feel ready to engage.
Undergraduate degrees take 3-4 years to complete. What are the chances that we all need exactly that amount of time to do it?
What if I have a period of flexibility and really want to binge-study my theoretical physics materials, or I find myself just struggling with my marketing case study and need some more time to get into the underlying concepts.
Sorry, but Universities have decided that 3-4 years is how long it takes. This course is 36 hours and that one is 70.
You can access the content when we release it to you, and if you're not ready for the next section, I'm afraid we just can't wait. At university, we study in a cohort and, like our Roman namesake, we all march as a unit to the same destination.
Voice and choice in Higher Education
We have known for a while now that lockstep sequencing of content does not empower self-directed lifelong learning in any way.
We also know that when students can choose the time and mode of learning, and pick their own pathway through the content framework, this not only suits our complex modern lives, but reduces dropout rates and improves outcomes when it's done well.
It is clear that asking students to engage with education entirely on its own terms is just anachronistic in the age of technology and independent learning. The global pandemic of 2020 has disrupted this model, and change has been accelerated in a matter of months, rather than the slow transition to more flexible learning.
We are in a time of transition. We have written about the end of the traditional MBA and Google's disruption of Higher Education. But we have also written about our hope that Liquid Learning can become more prominent, and how Universities can deepen brand engagement and support the children of tomorrow. This is an opportunity for us to step back and think about how we really want things to be. There will never be a better time.
At NEO Academy, it is our job to understand what students and institutions want and help facilitate engagement and communication.
From Liquid learning to adaptive learning, AI and VR to MOOCs and student-centered pedagogy, join us on NEO Academy's blog to spark those synapses over your morning coffee.
We come to you, because that's how it should be.