By Harold Elletson
Roger Schank and Donald Clark will be interrogated by leading internet analyst and writer Andrew Keen about their controversial views on higher education at OEB’s ‘MidSummit’ conference in Reykjavik on 8 June. Both Schank and Clark think that the higher education sector is unfit for purpose and in need of urgent reform. They believe technology offers an opportunity to restructure and transform higher education, so that it is capable of responding more effectively to the needs of the employers and markets of the future.
Both men are a mixture of entrepreneur, academic, commentator and visionary. Schank is one of the world’s leading authorities on the use of artificial intelligence in education, learning theory, cognitive science and the building of virtual learning environments. He is also the Chief Executive of Socratic Arts, a company which aims to design and implement learning-by-doing in schools, universities and corporations. Clark is the former CEO of one of the UK’s leading e-learning companies, who has won many awards for the design and implementation of online learning. He is also widely known as one of the education world’s most colourful and outspoken commentators – his ‘Plan B’ blog regularly slaughters sacred cows.
Their approach to education and their view of the central role of technology in the learning systems of the future is summed up by Schank:
“The future of education is not with local schools (who typically refuse to adapt) but with online providers who can adapt quickly, offer their products worldwide and offer pragmatic learning on an as-needed basis worldwide.”
It is an attitude dominated by a functional, utilitarian attitude to education. Ultimately, institutions must meet the needs of markets: if they don’t, they have failed. The problem with the Higher Education sector, they think, is that it is simply not considering how markets and the needs of employers are changing. Too many universities are content with ignoring teaching and simply rest on the laurels of their research. In the future, it will not be possible to be so cavalier about the interests and needs of students.
“Universities are run by professors,” says Schank. “At the top universities, in order to become a professor, you have to have demonstrated, and must continue to demonstrate, an ability to do cutting-edge research. Then, we ask these top researchers to teach. They have very little interest in teaching and, if they must teach, they want to teach about the research they are doing.
“This would be fine and dandy, if just the top universities behaved this way. They would produce the limited number of researchers that we need to keep advancing our knowledge. The trouble is that nearly every university feels the need to copy the model of the top places. So the 500th ranked university will still teach about their research to students who will surely never be doing research. Most universities refuse to address real workplace needs and refuse to teach practical skills. As the President of Yale said to me when I was a professor there, in response to my attempt to get more practical things taught at Yale ‘We don’t do training, Roger.’”
Schank and Clark’s interrogator at the special ‘MidSummit’ session, Andrew Keen, will use a ‘Hard Talk’ style to examine their views in detail. Long a sceptic about some of the wilder claims made for the supposed benefits of information and communications technology, he is the author of ‘The Internet is Not the Answer,’ a celebrated and witty deconstruction of internet hype. A former high-tech evangelist, with a Silicon Valley start-up in the early days, Keen is now the Internet’s fallen angel, who believes that, on balance, it has had a disastrous effect on our lives.
The mix of characters and the clash of opposites at this ‘Hard Talk’ plenary session, which is entitled “Is HE still worth it?”, should make for one of the most fascinating discussions at what will be a thoroughly engrossing conference.