The pillars of the education revolution: Learning, Qualification and Value


The Internet is spawning revolutions across all facets of society, and our traditional education system is the latest industry to face its disruptive power. In the following series of articles, I’ll provide a simple model for thinking about the education revolution, break things down into manageable chunks, and explore some of the business innovations going on with online learning and the so-called edtech revolution.

A system in crisis

It’s no secret that the US educational system, and indeed the American dream it fuels, faces significant challenges. Clayton Christensen and his colleagues summarize the situation best:

America is in crisis. Employers say paradoxically they cannot find the right people to fill jobs even though the country is facing its highest unemployment rates in a generation. Competition with a rising China and India and their vast populations lend urgency to the need for the country as a whole to do a better job of educating its citizens.

The institutions to which the country would turn to help tackle this challenge—its colleges and universities—are facing a crisis of their own. There is a rising chorus of doubts about how much the institutions of higher education that have been such a part of the country’s past successes can be a part of the answer. Graduation rates have stagnated despite a long track record of serving increasing numbers of students over the past half century. None of America’s higher education institutions have ever served a large percentage of our citizens—many from low-income, African-American, and Hispanic families. The institutions are now increasingly beset by financial difficulties, and the recent financial meltdown is but a shadow of what is to come. The further looming state budget crises spell difficult times for many colleges and universities. And there is a growing acknowledgement that many American universities’ prestige came not from being the best at educating, but from being the best at research and from being selective and accepting the best and brightest—which all institutions have mimicked.

(Source: Center for American Progress report: Disrupting Education – How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education)

It’s a dire situation, one that threatens our competitiveness on the world stage, but a group of Internet entrepreneurs hope to bring new tools and approaches to help fuel the disruptive innovation of which Mr. Christensen et al speak. From MOOCs to flipped classrooms to iPad learning apps, for K-12 through higher education, a flood of innovation is occurring in education technology. What remains to be seen is whether these new efforts will turn the dial. It seems there are more questions than answers at this point:

  • What do students, teachers, parents and administrators need the most?
  • What are the primary roles of K-12 and modern education in American society?
  • Can technology really be a disruptive innovation for education, or do the problems run too deeply?
  • Can the quality of learning be maintained (or improved) through the effective use of technology while still keeping costs reasonable?
  • Which new tools, products and services are the most promising?
  • What are the primary benefits to schools and do the benefits outweigh the costs?
  • How will this new crop of edtech companies make money and survive?
  • What are the key barriers to adoption and can they be overcome?

Opinions abound on the answers to these questions, but agreement is lacking, and too often the discussions fail to consider the broader picture, or even provide a framework for thinking.

A simple model for the education revolution

Education is a vast and complex subject, but a simple model can help pull it apart and let us think about the revolution. In this model, we consider three key facets of education: Learning, Qualification and Value (illustrated below). The holy grail, and the future of education, lies at the intersection of these three inseparable considerations.


Pillar I: Learning

Learning is just the process by which people acquire knowledge, and traditional models for how students learn are coming into question as part of the education revolution. Salman Khan and his much-discussed Khan Academy, in particular, argue that the standard one-size-fits-all model of synchronous learning is deeply flawed, and fails students with different needs and styles of learning. He’s not alone in his criticism, and the volume of conversation on the fundamental approach to learning is increasing. Technology, and the changes in behaviors it can support, are driving innovation, and numerous companies are emerging with products and services aimed in this realm.

Pillar II: Qualification

If learning is to be valuable to employers and society, above and beyond the benefit to the individual, we must have the ability to assess competency, and this means metrics, evaluation and ultimately qualification of a person’s knowledge. Traditional qualifications come in a few flavors, for example:

Digital equivalents to extend these traditional metrics are evolving, but things are still in the early days. Companies like StraighterLine (and a few others) offer college credits online that can be redeemed at a variety of partner universities; Coursera and edX are working to provide online versions of existing major university courses, though work has only begun on trying to create the ability to transfer these credits via ACE.

Beyond these traditional qualification metrics, new ideas are starting to emerge inspired by the world of gamification. Some people have proposed the use of digital badge systems as an alternative method for assessing competency. Ideas on this bleeding edge will need serious evaluation, and face significant barriers to adoption.

Pillar III: Value

The trickiest aspect of the education revolution is the subjective notion of value: what is the benefit of learning and education to an individual, to society at large, and more specifically to employers populating the American workforce? How do we assess the value of K-12 and post-secondary education? Is it the same for everyone? Can we hope to provide an education of equal value to everyone when faced with current economic and social realities? Given the gap between employer needs and simultaneously high unemployment rates (as mentioned by Christensen), it seems we’re failing when it comes to value as far as employers are concerned. Value is completely lacking for many low-income students who either can’t get into colleges, are unable to complete their education, or become saddled with crushing debt. Unfortunately, value is one of the least discussed aspects of education, since it challenges cherished assumptions about the perceived intrinsic value of a college degree, and opens up uncomfortable avenues of discussion about gaps in our higher education system.

Polarization and opportunity

The discussion and debate over the education revolution is intense, polarized and often contentious. Critics like Mark Edmundson from the University of Virginia deride the potential quality of online education; Sal Khan, Daphne Koller (Coursera), Sebastien Thrun (Udacity) and numerous others at online education startups see opportunity and the potential for real, positive change. The reality will, as always, probably be a mix of good and bad, but regardless of what part of the educational elephant you’re touching, it’s clear that change is coming, if not already here.

Digging deeper

This is the first in a series of posts about the education revolution. To dig deeper into any of the three major elements of the model described above, you can find more at the links below:

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the model presented above, or just general thoughts.

Additional reading

  • Ryan

    I’m not sure validation on its own is the right way of describing it. What exactly is being validated? In your last paragraph you mention assessment of competency. I think this gets at the essence of what you mean better than the term validation on its own. As a learner who has completed a course I can claim that I am now able to apply my new knowledge in way that leads to better outcomes – I have gained competency.

    So I believe the main aim is to acquire knowledge or skills that enable an increase in competency in a defined field. So then the validation you speak of is proof that your competancy has actually increased.

    This proof part is i think what you are getting at with the term validation. It is one thing for me to claim an increase in competency, it is quite another to demonstrate it to a third party

    • The terminology is indeed tricky. I agree that validation is perhaps not the best term, or rather that it’s easily interpreted in several ways. What I’m getting at is really the combination of competency and demonstration in a way that’s meaningful to a large number of third parties. Credentials (or credentialing) is maybe closer to what I’m getting at…