There is a Hidden Human Cost with Economies of Scale

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Kevin House is an Associate Professor in Practice at Durham University’s School of Education and a Fellow with the UK’s Chartered College of Teaching, and the Royal Society of Arts. At Education in Motion, he is currently Group Education Futures Architect (Global) focused on developing innovative interdisciplinary curriculum frameworks and credential eco-systems for Green School International, Dulwich College International, and School of Humanity. He has published work on a range of topics including regenerative education, pluri-culturalism, collaborative learning communities, digitizing twenty-first century skills, curriculum and assessment design, and educational leadership

 

Can innovations such as hybrid delivery and a more skills-focused approach reduce student dropout rates?

There is a well-worn adage: It takes a village to raise a child. Yet here we are, a quarter of a century into the new millennium, still building ever larger schools, colleges, and universities. In fact, might the argument be made that this approach is in no small part at the heart of the global wellbeing crisis in schools and universities?

Currently, the education industry is facing increasing challenges in trying to deal with this very human problem. Higher levels of student disengagement, negative ideation, and learner anxiety are leading to burgeoning school refusal rates and tertiary attrition. Consequently, institutions are encountering growing costs as they attempt to support students and avoid further increases in dropout rates in these public and private leviathans of learning. But, in our efforts to be ever more fiscally efficient by scaling up the size of our schools and colleges, have we lost sight of the fact that education is fundamentally a social activity requiring quality relationships rather than impersonality?

Arguably, like many predominant worldviews, our conviction of the value of scale can be so strong that it blinds us to its working realities. To the case in point, our belief that economies of scale inevitably created financial and resource efficiencies hinders us from seeing the hidden human costs of creating ever-larger institutions and systems. We firmly hold the principle that consolidating variables such as educator-learner ratios, facility needs, and the use of standardized, scalable assessment regimes will lead to an efficient educational business. But what if this concept of systematic efficiency overlooks certain core realities of how humans best learn and live? Might it be the case that our current economic worldview in education has inadvertently led to rising resource needs and financial costs as we try to convince learners to stay in huge, impersonal study factories?

So, rather than following prevailing wisdom let’s consider what an economy of ‘unscaling’ (Hemant Taneja 2018) might look like. Indeed, might we leverage technological and credentialing innovations to turn the education industry away from anonymous factories of learning and towards a concept of interconnected villages of learning? How might educational innovation, hybrid learning, and growth in the skills-based credentialing economy improve student engagement, decrease dropout rates, and nurture higher levels of belonging and flourishing?

Innovation

In both tertiary and compulsory schooling there are examples of real educational innovation. There are virtual university models such as Tomorrow University, project-only degrees offered at such institutions as the London Interdisciplinary School or TEDI, or nomadic degree programs such as that offered at Minerva University. All nurture smaller collaborative group working, which offers learners agency, flexibility, and personalization in their tertiary experience. Furthermore, similar opportunities are provided in the compulsory education sector by institutions such as the School of Humanity, Green School International, Boundless Life, and Think Global School. Overall, these models are versions of what I call hyper-personalised micro-schooling, and while they are currently outliers in relation to mainstream education they act as beacons for what an unscaled approach could look like in the not-too-distant future.

Hybrid learning

Today, it seems a moot point to question the value of online delivery models in education. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that established wisdom pre-COVID was that virtual learning and workshopping had to kick off with at least one face-to-face interaction. Such wisdom held that authentic productive learning interactions could not be established virtually until a relationship was fostered through a physical meeting. Today, few would question the authenticity of relationships that are established and developed online. This reality means that our village just got global by showing how we can unscale at scale without losing the human. Intimacy and friendship are more than possible to build online with some adaptation of our soft skills. Additionally, face-to-face opportunities undoubtedly enriches the experience hence the suggestion that a hybrid approach is the optimal way of building belonging, community diversity, and global competence.

Skills-based education

Think-tanks such as UNESCO, WEF, OECD, and the EU have long argued that education should do more to develop, embed and recognise adaptive skills in the future workforce. Generally, the reasoning is twofold. First, there is a clear societal need to prioritise what future industries require as more and more countries experience a growing technological skills gap. Second, the cadence and trajectory of careers have changed with each of us needing to value the notion of lifelong learning. Consequently, the future skills agenda has led to an increase in course modularization and micro-credentialing, which in turn vastly expands the educational offerings available to ‘learner-earners’ (House et al 2024). The notion that our inherited disciplinary academic curricula is the golden source of social capital is being challenged by a plethora of learning and credentialing models. Therefore, while components of the traditional scholastic curriculum hold value, they are collectively only one piece of the education jigsaw. Future citizens must have more diverse knowledge, higher technical fluency, and more sophisticated adaptive skills.

Unscaling at scale….

Ultimately, the challenge is how to embrace, conceptualize and operationalize such innovations so education might unscale at scale. In other words, reposition the education business’s dominant worldview from valuing factory scale at the expense of human wellbeing. The dehumanizing reality of 3,000 cohort schools and 30,000 cohort universities carries a hidden human cost, which ends up placing huge financial burdens on such institutions. I describe this worldview as taking a pathogenic approach to a ‘salutogenic’ (Antonovsky 1979) problem. However, if innovation can deliver hyper-personalized micro-learning that prioritizes human connectivity, adaptive skills development, and communal flourishing, education might move beyond continuing to validate dehumanizing industrial practices as its go-to solution.

A move to value relationships in learning will lead to improved personal engagement, lower levels of student anxiety, and reduced dropout rates. Furthermore, by adopting some of the innovations discussed here educators might shift their pedagogical and andragogical approaches and find greater value and less stress in their work. Who knows, perhaps even reducing dropout rates here as well! As the stewards of education, we must stop casting ourselves as overseers and gatekeepers of formal, structured knowledge factories and become the representatives of a global, informally connected network of knowledge villages.

The institutional tradition of education represents a system doggedly resistant to authentic change and as such dictates that scholastic disciplinary content remains king. But, ironically, research from its hallowed academies argues that the future requires we prioritize our relationship skills, offer far more experiential opportunity, and place greater credence on inter-generational wisdom. These are the hallmarks of a thriving village, not a factory, and as such a more efficient environment for building flourishing learners and harmonious learning communities.

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