In Higher and further education this year much is being written about the fact that we are at a pivotal moment, but what comes next is clearly a matter of huge debate. What has emerged, however, is a clear picture of just how nimble education can be.
Say what you like about the “old fashioned” institutions, but when the pressure is on we have seen just how quickly and creatively these same institutions can adapt. With the huge debts that governments have incurred in mitigating the effects of Covid-19, institutions know that little in the way of public money will be available to help the recovery in education. Jobs will be lost, and teaching and learning disrupted.
The typical response to an economic crisis in education has been to increase enrollment. New markets, trimmed operating costs, more attractive courses, and campus experiences. But this time, the crisis is not merely economic. There is certainly work to do in the revenue modeling that comes with falling student numbers, demand for cheaper courses held online, and the reality that quality online courses are not much cheaper to actually provide. Beyond the balance sheet, however, are potentially huge new social implications that change the way we study and work. As Timothy Devinney put it, “maybe this is the crisis that Higher Education had to have”.
Enter the concept of liquid learning. Though the attributes that make up liquid learning are not new, the umbrella term itself is still emerging into the lexicon of education. Back in 2014, the Horizon report forecast that a major emerging trend would be the “Integration of Online, Hybrid, and Collaborative Learning”. Synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities, interactive and gamified materials, students as creators, not consumers, and the opportunity to find a pathway through education that suited you regardless of where and when you wanted to study.
Embracing this model are IE University, with a Liquid Learning model they describe as an “infinitely customizable” and “borderless” approach to study. This new paradigm, which builds on experiential learning, social/communal constructivism, and immersive learning theories is well-positioned to appeal to a broad range of students, beyond the typical age range recruited for undergraduate and postgraduate study.
Curricula are designed with provisions to explore the process of learning together with the students. Hence, the learning strategies and teaching strategies are opened up for discussion, within the context of everyone’s own previous experiences. This means an institution accepting that its students are ‘informed learners’ with their own learning strategies, which may not fit perfectly with the tutor's approach. This doesn’t mean a lack of structure or a chaotic approach, but it means that instructors and learners are both parts of the discussion.
A good liquid learning environment is not based on technological determinism; which is to say, the belief that the value is in the technology itself. Technology is a tool and is only used with a solid pedagogical foundation. Much of this is an easy sell. Imagine, if you will, a biology student stepping into a virtual reality simulation of the replication of DNA. They are able to “see” the bonding sequence in a way that a PowerPoint simply cannot convey. In business strategy, a case study is gamified, offering students real-time feedback on their decisions at each stage in the activity. This is not technology as a gimmick but as a powerful tool for deeper learning.
3. Asynchronous and synchronous learning
The “flipped” classroom is a well-established model now, where students acquire the knowledge from lectures or texts at the time which best suits their own lives, and then construct the knowledge together with peers at a set time. This is at the heart of liquid learning. With families to care for, shift patterns at work, international time differences and of course a variation in chronotype, asynchronous learning makes sense. Engage with the material whenever suits you, and pause-rewind-fast forward to your heart’s content. However, good learning should also be social, but the liquid model ensures that synchronous learning is collaborative. That video lecture you watched yesterday? Now it’s time to apply it to a group challenge, facilitated by your tutor and assessed by your peer group. This is how knowledge is constructed and is a stronger form of learning, almost all educators would agree.
4. Adaptive curriculum
The word “liquid” might have given the game away, but the curriculum itself is never static in this model. As the world changes, trends emerge, feedback is collated and learning is applied to change things for the next round of students. This is an evolving and evolutionary approach to education.
5. Liquid work opportunities
Liquid working is a topic area in its own right and one which we will certainly explore in future. However, during your studies in a liquid learning model, you are encouraged to apply what you learn at work to your education and vice versa. The institution’s partnerships with business come into play here; helping students to find the best jobs, internships or professional experiences to fit the learning objectives.
6.Varied learning modes
Within a liquid model, you could study the first semester fully online from Turkey, with an internship in Istanbul and a supervisor in Kuala Lumpur. Fast forward to semester 2, and you are in a coworking space in Barcelona, attending weekly tutorials at a micro hub, viewing your lectures in the evening after work, and taking part in a business strategy challenge every Friday with a group of local entrepreneurs. The possibilities are endless.
7. The teacher as coach and mentor
With a varied learning environment and an emphasis on student-centered and self-directed learning comes the opportunity for teachers to tailor mentorship and coaching practices to their students. With the pre-recording of lectures, for example, comes some extra time in the schedule of a busy professor, and the opportunity to apply this to more focused professional guidance is something that few students are likely to be unhappy with.
Kegan wrote back in 2009 that there were serious challenges in training professors to really explore and adapt to the learning strategies of students. This is a similar issue in terms of the social and cultural communication skills needed for such open environments. Much clearer mapping of the impact of specific technology in learning activities needs to emerge, and of course, measuring outcomes in such a fluid environment is going to be tricky too.
Accreditation of degrees and masters programs is not typically thought of as “fluid” and this is likely to be one of the most challenging aspects of this new approach. In a 2014 study, one respondent teacher in a liquid model was quoted as saying “‘It’s anomalous, I think, to offer people opportunities to learn in different kinds of ways and then revert to very traditional forms of assessment, or very rigid course patterns […] It’s a contradiction really.’ “
Whatever the future holds, we can see that rigidity of an institution’s strategy is unlikely to weather the storms ahead. There may be challenges in bringing the model into mainstream use but, with the greater challenges to come in our external environment, perhaps it’s time we all took a second look at liquid learning.