Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Deconstructing ancient worlds to build our own: The case of education

Artificial intelligence, like other innovations, is redesigning education and gives people the opportunity to learn outside the walls of a brick-and-mortar school

Published: Oct 31, 2022 04:42:37 PM IST
Updated: Oct 31, 2022 05:04:22 PM IST

Deconstructing ancient worlds to build our own: The case of educationEducation has always depended on the quality of teachers and students, who, together, founded brands which stand for prestige and excellence Image: Shutterstock

There has never been such a big gap between the way the world is advancing and the way we teach. Irrespective of the level of education, the teacher-learner principle has not been called into question for many decades.

Over the last century, the world has evolved very rapidly, but the way we teach has remained unchanged. The teacher stands at the front, the learners sit at their desks, they write down what they are required to learn, look at the board and that is it.

Yet the education sector too is affected by the organisational flattening brought about by innovation. Less than 20 years ago, students walked into the classroom with a defined perimeter of knowledge acquired in previous years, whether in the same course, in a previous education level, or in even in another school structure altogether.

Today, professors have no way of knowing whether the student entering the classroom has already taken the same course or not, maybe a similar level course at a competing university which publishes its courses online or on a knowledge dissemination platform. How do you deal with a student who sits in the classroom and who, a week or a month prior, decided to take this course in another institution? Is this situation not bound to happen more and more often? Should we condemn a student who is passionate about a subject simply because their knowledge or interest could jeopardize the pedagogical approach prepared by the teacher?

Education has always depended on the quality of teachers and students, who, together, founded brands which stand for prestige and excellence. The globalisation of education only accentuated this phenomenon in the recruitment of both the best teachers and the best students. The inertia of the sector has reinforced this dynamic, which is why the higher educations at the top of rankings are also those which have a very prestigious brand.

In fact, education operates within a very strong hierarchical structure with a form of dominant-dominated relationship, with the prestigious brand and excellent teachers of the school at the top. The phenomenon of flattening seen in many sectors should also challenge the education sector, as well as the credibility given to knowledge platforms. Moreover, the development of online courses from different universities means that the students will be tapping into different structures to develop their knowledge. Is the best innovation course still Harvard or ESSEC? Or maybe HEC or Stanford?

The quality of innovation courses in these academically high-ranking universities is similar. However, we could legitimately say, for example, that the course on technological innovation is the best at Stanford given its long experience in this field, and that the course on responsible innovation is the most relevant at ESSEC given its pioneering spirit in this field. What prevents a student based in Mumbai from taking all these courses so that he can learn from the best on the different facets of innovation? Once again, there is a flattening movement, whereby all courses are aligned and available so that individuals can learn as much as possible on a theme or topic. The education of tomorrow will consist of a set of small structures offering an ultra-personalised meta-structure according to what one is interested in.

Also read: The constantly evolving educators of edtech

Will tomorrow’s education be built like a box of Lego, where everyone can pick “bricks” to build themselves up according to their individual goal? Universities and higher education institutions need to understand this evolution of education. Turning inward and considering themselves the best is what will lead the system to its demise. The structures dispensing education as well as the organisation of education and the courses themselves all have to be designed anew.

In such a context, technologies play a major role, in whatever form: tablets, computers, the Internet, and especially artificial intelligence. It is of knowing how AI should be integrated into education. If bots can offer restaurant recommendations between users based on their location, they are no less capable of connecting students around the world working on the same theme. And self-improving software would enable learners to progress, by pointing out common mistakes and, for example, how best to succeed at a given subject. At the end of the day, it is essentially the personalisation of education, which every teacher would dream of achieving but is de facto not possible in the current system. Conversely, AI could help teachers to rethink the way they teach, as many software programs can detect recurring weaknesses in students’ work and highlight what elements maybe not adequately addressed in the syllabus or the pedagogical approach.

Artificial intelligence, like other innovations, is redesigning education and gives people the opportunity to learn outside the walls of a brick-and-mortar school.

Technology, the flattening structures, and collaboration are the future of education. Let us go back to the example of teaching innovation. Teaching this discipline in today’s context is fraught with challenges. It is a very exhilarating discipline to teach: you work constantly on what is new, what offers a different perspective, what makes life simpler or more rewarding.

However, exciting as it may be, this discipline is not simple to teach because of one of its qualities: its omnipresence. Innovation is everywhere. If you have ears, eyes, a nose or a mouth you are the target of a recent innovation. It overflows, spreads, invades our everyday life. Knowledge pertaining to new innovations is no longer limited to over-achieving nerds. It is accessible and of interest to everyone. Whoever is interested in a particular sport, art, or any hobby or topic, knows what innovation are being developed in this field, anywhere in the world.

Also read: The pandemic crushed teachers. After Uvalde, they wonder 'what's more?'

What is problematic for teaching innovation is not so much the proliferation of innovations, but rather the exponential coverage they get, and interest they garner.

While teaching innovation is about understanding how the world was, so as to understand how the world is, and to make assumptions about what it will be; the greatest challenge is to understand the present world, in order to identify possible avenues for considering its future. One solution would be to rely on those who have steeped themselves in information on these topics and can offer relevant insight to the classroom. Such a system would enable the emergence of assumptions about the world to come. Consequently, one must ensure that the classroom is a space to monitor, explore and develop innovations.  All innovations should find their way to the classroom in order to build up the educational landscape. In practical terms, this can be achieved through the Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, accounts of the course or through its shared wiki or blog. Innovation should be the lifeblood of the course, each session acting as fab lab.

While students are in the best position to receive, share and highlight innovations, this does not necessarily mean that they comprehend them. That is where the teacher-decoder comes in. Young students and experienced teachers alike are always blinded by the lights of the present, and methodological analysis, academic rigour and perspective are the only things which can help us understand the innovations which flood our everyday lives, so that, ultimately, we are not overpowered by them.

We can no longer teach the same way as we did before social networks existed. How could we ignore several billion people connected to social media, which for many are the first – and sometimes the only – media they watch? Social media should, in fact, become one of the first channels for education.

The role of the teacher is undergoing a transformation. The teacher is no longer the mere bearer of hierarchical knowledge; the teacher is also an organiser, a decoding expert, a manager, a knowledge “scout” or of a form of raw knowledge which is brought to the heart of the education model.

We are already living in the world of flat innovation, with regards to music, publishing, and workspaces.

Innovation takes on many forms, crosses many sectors and spans many regions. Innovation advances inexorably, unapologetically and without compassion, in a cold and dehumanised manner. Relentless and indiscriminate, innovation and the innovator care about little other than the act of creating and doing, or generating value in whatever form and regardless of collateral damage.

Xavier Pavie is Professor at ESSEC Business School and Director of iMagination Center.