Sugata Mitra, winner of the 2013 TED prize, says, “Schoolsas we know them are obsolete.” His conclusion is based on his research with very poor children in India who, when given unfettered access to a computer, learned English, math, and science without being in school. Mitra calls this SOLE – a self-organizing learning environment. You might conclude that although SOLE is the future for poor kids in India, it is not the future for kids in urban centers in the West. I think that would be a naïve assumption. Development of the hundreds of millions of children who live at the bottom of the pyramid will have a profound effect on the rest of the globe. How they learn and how they learn to learn will shape the cultures of all global organizations. 

And the challenge to traditional classroom-based education is not coming only from K-12 educators. Educational leaders, parents, policy makers, and students themselves are demanding results from their investment in colleges and universities.  Computer technology is beginning to provide a solution and it is not in the classroom.

Tom Friedman, in a column for the New York Times, writes:

Institutions of higher learning must move, as the historian Walter Russell Mead puts it, from a model of “time served” to a model of “stuff learned.” Because increasingly the world does not care what you know. Everything is on Google. The world only cares, and will only pay for, what you can do with what you know. And therefore it will not pay for a C+ in chemistry, just because your state college considers that a passing grade and was willing to give you a diploma that says so. We’re moving to a more competency-based world where there will be less interest in how you acquired the competency — in an online course, at a four-year-college or in a company-administered class — and more demand to prove that you mastered the competency.

Online course (free!) providers, such as Coursera, are starting to offer options for measuring competency and thus recognize “stuff learned” and not just “time served”.

The training and development industry needs to change also. The method of training is still based predominately on a centuries-old model of teacher-centered, classroom instruction while most of what employees need to learn would be learned more effectively if it was a combination of “elearning” and on-the-job coaching. It might be, as Mitra suggests, that even “knowing” is obsolete because anything we need to know can be found in the cloud within a few minutes.

I say all of this with a strong caveat. Some knowledge and skills are best developed, or at least supported, in a structured classroom environment, such as much of the social sciences and literature, subjects in which a facilitated discussion is essential to learning. So I think the classroom, whether in a school, college, or business, still has a place. However, currently we rely much too heavily on this method of developing young people and employees. As I wrote in a previous blog post, “Throw out the course catalog.”

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