S1-E2 The Future of Higher Education | Jonathan Powers, Ph.D.

THE BIG QUESTION: What if, in the future, the goal of education was to make us better humans instead of better workers? Episode 2 looks at pre and post-pandemic higher education challenges and raises some pointed questions about how we got here, and how education might evolve in the future. Gina Clifford and Howard Fields are joined in this discussion by Jonathan Powers, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Arts & Humanities at Minerva University, and a champion of Active Learning.

The OmniFuture S1-E2 - The Future of Higher Education

[00:00:00] Gina Clifford: Welcome to the OmniFutures podcast. I'm Gina Clifford, and the topic of this episode is The Future of Education. Today, I'm joined by our executive producer and co-host, Howard Fields. We're speaking with Jonathan Powers, Assistant Professor of Arts and Humanities at Minerva University. Welcome, Jonathan. Last year I hosted the Grey Swan Guild's Future of Education Panel, as part of the Thousand Day Radar event and you were one of the panelists. You shared such great insights at the session that we wanted to have you here on the podcast to dig in a little deeper on this topic. You have a pretty interesting job. Talk a little bit about your background and what your job is like at Minerva. 

[00:02:15] Jonathan Powers: Awesome.Thank you so much for having me Gina, great to see you again. Howard a pleasure as always. I first taught a class when I was 22 years old and had no idea that I would fall in love with teaching, but I did. I fell hard…ended up spending way more time working on my teaching load than I did on my graduate studies which turned into a bit of a problem for me at the time. But it has been really a source of pleasure and passion ever since. So my career has really been, I guess, an exploration of teaching in a variety of different ways and a variety of different places. I've taught at elite universities. I’ve taught at non-profits. I’ve taught in corporate settings. So it has really been a full exploration of what teaching has to offer. But to bring it full circle, Minerva University is the first university in the world, to my knowledge, that is institutionally structured and dedicated to the principles of active learning. And for those listening who don't know what that is, please do Google it right away. It's really important. But the basic idea is that the teacher is more concerned with what the students are doing than with what the students are quote, unquote, “exposed to”. And so at Minerva University, all the classrooms are fully online. No more than 18 students, so an online seminar environment. But the students are together. 

[00:03:30] Jonathan Powers: So they actually form a cohort who live together, eat together, work together, study together. And the cohort moves from city to city all over the world. As you can imagine, they get the benefit of being in a cohort. So they do have these sort of lifelong friendships being formed. And at the same time, they're in this online environment, which has been hand-coded to support active learning. Teaching there has been just a dream. It's so cool.

00:03:55) Gina Clifford: Minerva sounds like an amazing institution and, we're so glad that you're able to share a little bit of information about that. Before we dive into our discussion though, I thought it would be great if you could give us a brief background into how we ended up with the current educational system that we have today. 

[00:04:15] Jonathan Powers: I'm going to focus more or less on Higher Ed, although of course, we'll dip into some of the stuff, in secondary school and even primary at instances that are propitious. The main thing that I want to focus on is: why are we still lecturing? Basically, the university is a medieval institution. And some of the things that we do in a university still literally are medieval. Some of that is pretty cool and interesting. The medieval structure was very communitarian focused so shared governance, which is still an interesting feature of universities. But then there are the problems. There's lecturing which is a great idea for spreading information if you don't have any technology beyond your voice, to communicate. And we still have this idea that the university's role is to carry a tradition forward. It's supposed to preserve what little knowledge we have and make sure that it doesn't get lost. 

[00:05:06] Jonathan Powers And that was really its role when it first came into existence, or one of its primary roles. There was this great threat that knowledge would get lost. And it was real, you know, handwritten books and fire destroyed the library of Alexandria. It was real that knowledge could be lost. We don't live in that world anymore and yet we haven't adjusted this institutional structure. We haven't adapted. We still use all kinds of things that were baked into the institution that in some cases are a thousand years old and in other cases just a few hundred, but have become real problems to the university solving the problems that face it and serving the needs of its primary stakeholders. Here, I'm thinking primarily of students, but also of society—the public that funds it and supports it. 

[00:05:46] Howard Fields: It's interesting you say the primary stakeholder is students. Not to be controversial about this but in many institutions, there are those that claim that the primary stakeholders are the administration. Perhaps I should ask do you think there's a push-pull between those two things? Maybe not at Minerva given the way it's structured—but in the more traditional institutions? 

[00:06:07] Jonathan Powers: There's a push/pull in every, institution along those lines. I've worked as an administrator and I have great respect for the challenges of administration. It is always difficult What makes something easy to administer is not necessarily what makes something good or effective for the population that it is supposed to serve. To give a simple example would be something along the lines of active learning. There's a science of teaching and learning that has been around for more than 50 years that shows unequivocally students learn more when they actually do things. It’s hard to track what they're learning exactly. It's much easier to focus on content. And so as an administrator—and again—I’ve done this, what you're often faced with is a schedule and the schedule is divided just like your day planner into a set of boxes. And you put the titles of the courses in the boxes, which are supposed to conform to the quote-unquote content that the students are learning. 

[00:07:00] Gina Clifford: That's a great lead into the next set of questions that we have. We want to focus on empowered learning instead of empowered institutions. So when we last spoke, Jonathan, we used the “Futures Framework” to explore what higher education might look like if we shifted away from that industrial model. And you shared some very interesting, possible outcomes. One of the ideas you shared was around the elimination of grades. Why do you think this might happen and what are the benefits of doing that? 

[00:07:28] Jonathan Powers: So there's a number of reasons that it might happen. The primary one is that again, the science of teaching and learning, they don't work. They don't help students learn. And this means that if you're an employer who actually wants to hire people who actually know how to program. 

[00:07:42] Jonathan Powers: They need to write client email. The fact that they've gotten an "A" in this or that class tells you nothing about their actual skill level. And we've all met these people who are book smart, they've mastered the skill of getting a good grade but they don't really know the material. And certainly not six months after they've taken the class. 

[00:08:00] Howard Fields: They certainly lack the application, if you will, of whatever it was they've learned. They've learned the theory, not the applied nature of it.

[00:08:08] Jonathan Powers: Oh, even then sometimes it's the theory of taking tests as opposed to the theory of whatever it is that they're learning. So, that's one reason don't work from a learning perspective. They don't really guarantee what they're supposed to guarantee. The second reason is psychological, a mental health reason. We know that this creates a very strong stressor on students. And we've just witnessed watching them go through the pandemic. This is not good for learning or for students or for families or for institutions. There's nothing good about adding unnecessary stress to students and grades do. Third reason, I would point to is that we already have institutions that succeed without grades.

[00:08:43 Gina Clifford: When we last talked, you mentioned, the model of the one-room schools and maybe peer instruction. Could you talk a little bit about how that fits into this model? 

[00:08:52] Jonathan Powers: Yeah. So once you get rid of this idea of we're going to rank students and grading is again, the word means “to rank”. To set them up against one another. And as soon as we sort of step back from this idea that school is what we think it is. And we start to ask: how do humans actually learn? And you think about your own experience and the example that I gave in our conversation which applies beautifully here is the martial arts classroom. The best way to get a kid to really learn that new kick that you've taught her is to have her teach the next level down how to do it. And as she figures out, how can I explain how to set your hips? How can I explain how to set your feet? She's teaching herself she's articulating to herself. She's really locking that in.

And so enlisting students as teachers themselves is really one of the most effective techniques. This idea that all the students need to march through year by year in the same cohort. This is really if you think about it, we said an industrial model. It feels like an assembly line. They move through at whatever pace the conveyor belt moves, irrespective of whether they're ready or not. If we said well, let's just, take the students that are approximately at the same level and have them taught by the students who are a little bit ahead of them. This doesn't work for everything, but for a lot of skills, this really works. 

[00:10:09] Gina Clifford: Yeah, that's really interesting, and d it kind of ties in with maybe what's happening right now in college enrolments? College enrolments have been sliding in the U.S. at least for the past decade. And I think have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. So perhaps some of these models that were set up so long ago — really during the pandemic—people are no longer feeling that they're going to help them. And so how may colleges rethink their operations so they can remain relevant in the future?

[00:10:40] Jonathan Powers: Well, one thing that needs to be mentioned is that pandemic or no pandemic, demographics are coming for universities. You know, the great recession, 2008, there was a pullback in the number of children that we're having. And so we're facing a demographic cliff one way or the other and colleges have known about this and have been taking productive action. They've been trying to think about how they can manage this. The other bit about the pandemic is that just like workers want the flexibility of working the way that works best for us hybrid at the office at home, students are experiencing the same thing. We survey students again and again and again and the results are always the same. Some students love hybrid. Some students love all online and some students want to come back to the classroom. And I think that this is just how it is and so flexibility is something that institutions are going to need to be thinking about really hard. 

[00:11:27] Howard Fields: Can you, talk about some of the things that the leading edge institutions are doing? 

[00:11:32] Jonathan Powers: In terms of? 

[00:11:33] Howard Fields: That you think are inventive in terms of dealing with the demographic cliff. 

[00:11:38] Jonathan Powers: One of the most interesting is universities and colleges have woken up. Oh my gosh, there are adult learners. You know, people don't start learning at 18 and then stop learning at 22. There's this much larger universe of people who are eager to explore and not just for their careers, although that's real, some people realize at the age of 40 there are these philosophical questions that I have and I'm ready to engage in them, or I've always wanted to study literature. I've always wanted to think about anthropology, or I just got interested in art, because my new spouse is really interested and that's really sparked something in me. Curiosity doesn't have an expiration date and universities have woken up to this. So I'm starting to see, universities think a lot more about, continuing ed, adult ed., and although I've currently see it siloed, you know, you sort of see, a faculty of continuing education at a university. 

[00:12:30] Jonathan Powers: I'm looking forward to the moment where they stop that. The philosophy department needs to teach people who are in their fifties and sixties. And having done that myself, I can tell you, it is extremely rewarding to teach these humanities disciplines, to people who have life experience. 

[00:12:44] Howard Fields: So that's really interesting because that ties back the removal of grades from the discussion. Cause who cares if you're learning for yourself as opposed to learning to get a job. 

[00:12:55] Jonathan Powers: That's another odd one: this idea that you learn to get a job. There's something peculiarly American about it. And yet at the same time, it's kind of backwards. You think about this. We expect public support for these institutions, but only 30% of the population is going to benefit from them and experience the personal gain of the increase in income. That's not a winning democratic proposition. Why should a voter who doesn't have a degree vote for that? That doesn't make sense at all. It's really sounds and is, the perpetuation of an elite, not a ladder upwards. So I agree with you Howard, that there's something that's a little bit suspect. 

00:13:33] Gina Clifford: Yeah. So the subscription models for lifelong learning, when we talked before you were talking about that, and I think that also fits in with the no grade, focus because you're learning it for yourself. You just want to be a more knowledgeable person or you're fascinated by this. 

[00:13:49] Gina Clifford: So you're willing to not be four years and done. Now you're thinking about it as life changes as the world changes. I want to keep up with it and I want to continue to learn with it. So could you talk a little bit about your idea of multiple Alma Maters and lifelong learning and how they might fit in that new model? 

[00:14:08] Jonathan Powers: So multiple Alma Maters is something that we've seen is that students are transferring quite a bit more. And obviously, I think the pandemic has opened up the fact that you can literally attend two universities at the same time. You can take one class over here… you can take another class over there. As long as there's a kind of parity or there's an acceptance that the credits will transfer one way or the other, it works. And one of the things we're also seeing is consortia of universities coming together. I just read about one in the Northeast that was twenty-one liberal arts colleges, they would form a consortium. They'd offer some classes together and those classes offered online could fit into a variety of the programs that were offered at any of the twenty-one. So that the institutions could specialize and yet have a kind of online hub. So this I think is where I was going with the multiple Alma Maters. And I personally benefited from this. I went to school in the five colleges region, the pioneer valley in Western Massachusetts. You can take a course at any of them and it will be accepted at any of the others. This is clearly, an easy way forward. As for the subscription model, I haven't seen anyone doing this full on yet, but I know that a lot of institutions are thinking about how can we get our alumni back? They already have a relationship, they already have a transcript. It's “repeat business” kind of obvious, right? It's sort of like everything in one place, except that we're not offering the product in a way that they find appealing. And just like Howard was saying, why wouldn't somebody who took a degree in marketing from, I don't know, Purdue University to speak of a university that's very innovative and I respect a lot. Why wouldn't they come back and do some philosophy courses? I meet so many people who rediscover the humanities, in midlife, they suddenly, I wish I had known then what I know now because now the whole literature thing makes sense to me. I've had enough experience in my life that I understand the plight of these characters. 

[00:16:00] Gina Clifford: So to me, you're describing an Amazon model for education where it just becomes your place to buy things. And in a university, it could be just your place to continue to learn just as you would continue to consume things that you need. And that should be as important as anything else. 

[00:16:17] Jonathan Powers: A little more “Shopify” than “Amazon”, I would say. So individual institutions putting out their own storefronts, but yeah, and the subscription model is that you just pay a kind of a regular fee. Guild and,Coursera are working at the edge of that, sort of you just pay a fee and you have access to the library of courses, but what's really missing is the cohort, what people need in order to succeed is the social pressure of, you know, I don't want to disappoint my classmates. I don't want to disappoint. 

[00:16:46] Howard Field: Or I don't want to embarrass myself. 

[00:16:48] Jonathan Powers: That's it exactly. Such a powerful force and it's like, it can easily be turned for good or for evil. Let's turn it for good. Let's get them connected to one another, you know, sort of a group of people who like one another and are studying together. 

You don't want to let them down. And having a great professor, that you're connected to and don't want to let her down. Yeah, that gets students out of bed. It did me. I assume all of us are sitting here thinking of times when all the only reason I did my homework, cause I didn't want to disappoint somebody. 
Yeah, I got to agree. This is the human behavioral aspect dynamic in this discussion that we're beginning to touch on. And it's funny your comment about consortia. I really hadn't thought about it in those terms, but it's kind of like the sports model: we're in the Big 10 Conference and we have the schools that are part of the conference. There is something to be said for extending, everyone's individual brand into something larger and probably a final behavioral aspect of this is just like we all join organizations because we like the people that are in them. 

[00:17:54] Howard Field: And in fact, the three of us met through one of those types of organizations. Expanding beyond your own school into a conference gives you a larger cohort of people to say, yeah, this is my tribe. There's a lot to be said for, for that model. I think that's a really good observation, Jonathan. 

[00:18:14] Jonathan Powers: Speaking then to the issue of the online, part of that. And I know this is on our map of questions for the day. I think we're going to move towards the Pareto principle, you know 80% online, 20% in person. Except for people who have a strong preference there will be exceptional cases, always. But you don't need to spend all of this time and money living in a little utopian world for four years to get almost all of the benefit of this. What you need is that really strong cohort relationship. You need to have met your professors in person so that you know who they are as human beings and can recreate that. We forget sometimes that even in person there's a kind of virtual overlay in our experience. That's what it is to be a human. It's like all the books that you've read about Paris. You go to Paris, you're not going just to the city of Paris. You're also going to the place that you imagine you're going to. And so just like that when we create relationships with, for example, our professors and our peers in class, it's who we imagine them to be. And having been in their presence for a few weeks, we can really recreate that kind of cohort feeling online. But you have to have seen them first. So I really see a kind of, you come together at the beginning of the semester, run the semester or whatever, online mostly, and then come together at the end to kind of wrap things up. 

[00:19:33] Jonathan Powers: And that's it your commitment to being in person much lighter and yet same value. 

[00:19:40] Gina Clifford: So I think that kind of leads us into the next area of discussion which is more focused on the institutional, structural change that needs to happen. And as you've said, you believe that most universities will actually flip from mostly in-person to mostly online probably over the next 10 years with bringing people together. At the beginning of the end, like you said. What do you think will drive that? And what are you seeing right now that supports that trend? 

[00:20:06] Jonathan Powers: There are a couple of things going on there. One is that although I originally had this idea that he real estate thing would really bite the university. They've spent these past 50 years being acquisitive. I lived in Montreal. I've watched McGill and Concordia acquire acquire, acquire. And now that I think they're going to have a lot of space that isn't necessarily used. On the other hand, I think everybody's having that issue. And so I think inner-city real estate values are going to relax a little bit. We're not going to see quite as much pressure for that space. So I'm not sure there. But I think mainly it's going to be faculty and student demand. And even to the point where there's at least one professor that I know of, and I'm blanking on the name. He's one of the founders of Perusal, which is an online social reading tool. He's a professor of physics at Harvard who has actually said the online experience is so much better because it's conducive to active learning: everybody's in the front row and you can drop people in a breakout like this without all the moving furniture around. You can do polls. You can really have a much more interactive experience as a student in a good online classroom. He has actually had such a good experience online that he thinks it might be unethical to go back to the classroom. I have to say there's a part of kind of agrees with that. And having taught at Minerva now, having taught with a tool that was designed for teaching.

[00:21:24] Gina Clifford: How do you think demand from big corporations might fit into that? Because they're also looking for their next cohort of talent. 

[00:21:32] Jonathan Powers: In terms of the institutional structure? 

[00:21:34] Gina Clifford: In sort of what's driving this trend toward these kinds of structures. Do you think that this is going to shape the way we work? And that employers are going to look at needing to have people that understand this or appreciate that structure. 

[00:21:50] Jonathan Powers: I think the pressure that corporations are going to bring on this is, against the four-year degree. And the point that again, this sort of concentrated learning that would all happen all at once and then you're kind of set free…this kind of smacks of a kind of certain medieval quality to it. When travel is very difficult and dangerous, you're going to do this once in your life and that's the only opportunity that you're going to have because of how damn hard it is to actually get to the place where the learning happens. To actually get to the library. 

[00:22:20] Jonathan Powers: Cause there aren't that many copies of it. We just don't have this issue anymore. And so we've seen this already that, the STEM disciplines spend all of their time trying to train students. It takes five years to get a program and built and approved. So by the time the first cohort graduates, it's five years to build the program four years to take the program, they're 10 years out of date. They’re graduating with the skills that were really relevant 10 years ago. What all corporations want is the skills that are valuable now. So I think what we're going to see is, a much more, decomposed degree, where you learn a little bit and pick something up and then you go to work. And then you come back and you learn a little bit more, and then you go to work. They're going to be much more interleaved. And the degrees might still exist, but they'll exist as milestones.

Once you've taken enough of these classes and built up enough expertise, we can certify you and say, you're not a beginner anymore. You can get, you know, a bachelor's, it doesn't really matter what we call it. Actually, the word bachelor's is a very weird word to call a degree — but in any event, we can say you've passed the beginner's level. You're a journeyman now. And then after a certain level, you're a master, you're qualified to teach, which is what a Ph.D. or a master's degree really is supposed to mean. You're qualified to teach in this discipline. So it might take longer, but it won't be as concentrated. 

[00:23:38] Howard Fields: You just really triggered a thought and this goes back to what are the new elements of learning that we have to teach? And one of the things when you're not present on a campus in a consolidated timeframe, you don't have access to resources in the traditional sense, like a research librarian. I remember when I was teaching that, my students would come in with stuff they'd pulled from Google that I was readily able to challenge because they didn't fact check it. Just because it's on Google doesn't mean it's true. And so it strikes me that if you don't have a place to go with a craftsperson and a master, like a research librarian to learn how you discern those things. Well, now there's a new piece of courseware that has to be created. And it is the critical thinking aspect of this, that somehow needs to be imbued a different way. This ties a lot of this whole conversation together. It's really very, very interesting. There's one plant that makes Ford automobiles, right? It's the one plant. And I know that they don't do this anymore, but this is a hundred years ago. This is the one plant. 

[00:24:47] Jonathan Powers: We bring everybody in here. Everybody works according to the single assembly line model. It's ingenious. What we have now is something where we don't need every individual teacher. responsible for teaching critical thinking within their discipline. The teachers would recognize themselves as being responsible for content, which is whatever the title of the course is, organic chemistry or advanced English composition. And you get a good teacher, they bring those things in exactly what you suggested, Howard, they challenge the sources that are of low quality, because that's what they should do. It's just good practice. Whereas now, we're aware that critical thinking has its own structure. And we know actually quite a bit about it. There's a lot of very interesting research and philosophical thinking around what critical thinking is. And what can we can do is we can decompose critical thinking and then we can decompose organic chemistry and we can figure out how they fit together. 

[00:25:45] Jonathan Powers: Then you need somebody who can plan a learning experience. So again, not deliver a lecture, not tell you how they're connected. Plan and experience where those connections become perspicuous, become more obvious, become showcased. And the students have the experience of those “aha moments”, a great teacher stages those. 

[00:26:11] Howard Fields: Right. 

[00:26:12] Jonathan Powers: And the student. 

[00:26:13] Howard Fields: It's theatre, exactly. 

[00:26:14] Jonathan Powers: Magic, right? There is real magic and it has to do with hacking human perception. This is the same thing. If you give somebody an “aha moment”, they grab it and they hold it and they think it's theirs. I learned this from a teacher, Vanessa Rumble at Boston College who was one of my inspirations. And she told me once, I said, “we're doing so well in class." And she said, "You don't realize how much of that is me making it seem like you guys are having this amazing conversation." And when I sat back and looked, I realized she was right. 

[00:26:43] Jonathan Powers: That was her letting me behind the curtain. The students need to feel like they're the ones having the “aha moments” because if they do, they're real. It is a real psychological cognitive event and they grabbed the learning.

[00:26:56] Gina Clifford: What you're describing is a human-centered perspective, or in this case student-centered perspective. So with all of the things that you've been talking about, bringing everybody into the front row and having everybody, basically at that same level of expertise. So it isn't the smarter students sit in the front and of the quieter students are stuck in the back…everybody has the same access to engage. So could you talk a little bit about inclusion and is this really more inclusive or what maybe are some of the areas where it hampers inclusion. 

[00:27:32] Jonathan Powers: I think it's differently inclusive. What it does and what it has provided is like binocular vision. We had this idea of a classroom that was inclusive in person, and we were wrong about a lot of stuff. And now we have a different idea about what can be inclusive, which is online and we're still going to be wrong about a lot of stuff. But here's an example of one thing that everybody has noticed, is that when you make the chat available and people can step forward and contribute to the conversation without having to step up and be sort of this bold speaker can, they can kind of just quietly put something off to the side. 

[00:28:08] Jonathan Powers: A lot of them do and it turns out a lot of those quiet students are listening. And they're sharp and they see that you're doing this or not doing that. And so basically we opened up a couple of other channels of input in the classroom. It's actually possible to do this. You can actually have people turn to the person next to you and have this conversation. Then we're going to debrief. They have, tools like “Top Hat” that the students can literally text little messages and then you can get a little anonymous, “here are all the responses that we got,” and then feature one. So the tools are coming. We're going to fight for inclusion in a lot of powerful ways coming forward. But I think what I hope really was the key insight of the pandemic was it doesn't have to be the way that it was when we were kids. You can conduct effective education in a lot of different ways. 

[00:28:58] Gina Clifford: I think just taking that a little bit further: AI is kind of a buzzword. Artificial intelligence is finding its way into a lot of our tools through chatbots and, maybe in the future, the metaverse through avatars and things like that. So if you thought about it, what are some of the potential downsides to having AI in higher ed if it does become more widespread?

[00:29:20] Jonathan Powers: I'll take that two ways. I'm going to offer what I think is the key downside, the real danger to watch out for, and then I'm going to offer what I think is the upside of the mirror image of it. I think the real downside is that we're going to think of AI as good enough. So if you think about Grammarly, I love Grammarly, a great tool, getting better. I, totally, all my students use this. My time is not particularly well spent correcting student grammar. I'm much more valuable in correcting other things. I don't think we're going to get to the point where AI can actually form effective relationships with students that will inspire. "I didn't want to disappoint the AI so I did the assignment." I don't think we're going to get there. And so the thing that I'm most concerned about is that we'll get to the point where we think the thing that AI does that humans can't is scale. This is this industrial concept that “hey, everybody will have access to this AI tool." Having Grammarly is not being a good writer. At best, what Grammarly is, is failing to suck. This is an important standard. You’ve got to get students over that bar but this does not help students pursue excellence. It's a “jacks or better kind of thing”, so you don't embarrass yourself when you send something out, but it is far from the ultimate answer as to how to present yourself We've all written those sensitive emails right? Now, there's as much going on in what you don't say as what you do say. Grammarly, I think, can't imagine who the audience is and understand. 

[00:30:58] Jonathan Powers: It might have some idea of who the writer is. Machine learning can learn about me, but it can't know my audience. And therefore it can't connect me effectively to my audience. This is something that humans, I think, are going to be persistently better than AI at. And to do this well, you really need good training from a teacher who understands writing and who forces you to read good English or Chinese or whatever language you're trying to write in. And really pushes you into that space where you realize that it's an imaginative act. That's what writing is. I can see AI helping me shape that. I can't see it doing the work. I can't see it identifying have you thought of this, which isn't mentioned. 

[00:31:41] Howard Fields: Well, what you're really saying is it doesn't understand context. 

[00:31:44] Jonathan Powers: Yes. It has a really hard time with context, and so that brings me to another question that I wanted to make sure we had a chance to ask you. There is a sense that a lot of the improvements are going to be based on emerging technologies that we're seeing in their early life cycle. That as they mature, they'll get better. Are there others? For example, these GPT- J or GPT- 3 technologies that actually write for you, these AI solutions are, in the very early stages now and certainly not something that you would allow to publish on your behalf. But are there other technologies that we should be watching for that are being anticipated that when they occur, it's really going to signal a paradigm shift? I've given this quite a bit of thought and I want to see technologies that allow us to do less. And I mean, literally less everything, less hours spent. And so I'm trying to think about what that might actually look like, to sort of ask what technology can we dispense with. Email comes to mind. 

[00:32:57] Jonathan Powers: If we got rid of all email in higher ed, what would happen? And I was like, oh, I'm not sure it would be the worst thing.

[00:33:07] Howard Fields: More time for direct teaching.

[00:33:09] Jonathan Powers: More time for reading or whatever it is that you care about. More time for that problem set that you need to work on. More time for actually puzzling out the intricacies of an accounting tangle. So that's what I'm looking for is that we keep coming up with these tools that sort of promise oh, we'll take over some of this clerical work and we ended up with more clerical work than ever. I'm reminded of that Xerox promise, you know, the paperless office. It's like we use more than ever. Well, yeah, it's been the history of the technology business that we fix a problem on one side of the equation so that we can create a market to fix the problem on the other side equation. So for example, Jonathan, you talk about all this email you get. You now need a robot to respond to the robotic emails. If you look into the future and what people are proposing are avatars will be utilitarian. They will actually be responding on your behalf and they'll probably be responding to other bots. So that's not an unreal scenario, Howard, that's actually a roadmap for some of these companies. 

[00:34:12] Jonathan Powers: It's not unrealistic at all. It’s just in education, there's a breakdown because, in education, my robot can't do my pushups for me and have me experience the benefit. If my robot writes my paper, I did not get the benefit of wrestling. So education is a funny one here. In America, we've seen this, especially this idea that education will benefit from business principles, which you know, are efficiency, technical focus, and so on and so forth. But we see that there's so much of education, which is if I can use this word, not goal-oriented. You've ever watched a six-year-old become curious about something and then lose track of what they were doing before and focus on the thing that is just, it was a distraction that became, a subject of interest that then becomes a passion. That's what it feels like: “well, they didn't complete their goal." That's the point of the story is that the goal was actually not the goal. Alot of education is like this. 

[00:35:10] Gina Clifford: So it goes back again to the student-centered, or human-centered, focus instead of a
system focus. 

[00:35:16] Howard Fields: You know, it's interesting. Business for most of our lifetime was all about, just-in-time management, just-in-time supply chain. I think what we've witnessed as a result of the pandemic is that overarching pursuit of a goal leads to fragility because if you look at how easily the supply chains have been interrupted and then start thinking now if I'm applying those same principles to students, what's the equivalent fragility that we are creating? That's probably a discussion for another day. But it is scary when you start to think about it that way. 

[00:35:54] Jonathan Powers: This is why when I think about technology and education, my two key questions are: how can you support and build trust using technology? I think that there are some interesting and promising things like the transparency of what happens, what is a student actually able to demonstrate. We've talked about portfolios, instead of grades, you'd have a portfolio. This is the work that I, it's past tense verbs, not just a number. I was able to produce this report. I was able to solve this kind of problem. You're able to demonstrate not just that you have such and such learning, but that you were able to climb such and such a mountain. This seems to me to be a much more effective way of individualizing student learning. And I don't think we quite have the tech yet to do that. So maybe that's one interesting place where a certain kind of trust in the individualization of learning could be brought forward. The other one is in how can you spark curiosity and nurture it. 

[00:36:48] Jonathan Powers: And again, this is non-goal-oriented. It's non-transactional so when one thinks of Amazon's recommendation algorithms, which let's face it, are pretty good, if you assume that people will continue to like what they like. And what I just told was the story of where I stopped liking what I liked before. That's what learning is. I abandoned old preferences and adopt new ones. So if someone presents me a technology that seems capable of doing that, that would get me really excited about educational implications. 

[00:37:21] Howard Fields: So, Jonathan, which question did we neglect to ask you that you wish we did about education and the future of education?

[00:37:26] Jonathan Powers: There's so much to talk about, but I think the one that I can speak to is this thing about the liberal arts and humanities. We've all seen that they're under pressure these days as there's been this emphasis on STEM. 

[00:37:39] Jonathan Powers: It's really a cold war thing. The simple fact is that if you took away, let's just look to Harvard. Everyone acknowledges Harvard is one of the leading lights and universities. Yet If you took away the liberal arts and humanities, you don't have Harvard University anymore. You've got a lot of really cool research, a lot of really cool, smart, young people. You've got some outstanding programs, maybe some sports teams, which you are more or less impressed by, but do you have a university? And why is that the liberal arts and humanities sit there and why are they so important? The basic thing that I would say is that the liberal arts and humanities are based on the idea all the way back to the Greeks. That what is best about being a human can't come to the front without help. We can be human by ourselves without help just sort of bump along. But to go from being merely human to being truly human requires deliberate intervention from people who have lived a little bit more. Seen a little bit more. Know a little bit more. And that I think is the promise of education and the promise isn't that you're going to get a job. The promise isn't that you are going to change the world or anything like that. The problem is that you can't become who you really are without this. And I think that's a more important promise. And that's why it's been called the humanities. It's associated with the actual humanness of the person in front of you and why it's called the liberal arts, it’s because it's had this age-long association with freedom. Freedom from the biases that your culture bestows upon you. Freedom from, the oppression of something like superstition. Bad thinking. We all know what that's like. Right? Freedom from error. Freedom from not being able to think your way out of a situation. All the way to freedom to actually express your thoughts in a way that others can relate to. 

[00:39:42] Gina Clifford: Wow. Bravo, Jonathan, that was powerful. Thank you for joining us, Jonathan. it was a pleasure talking with you today on this incredibly rich topic. I know we could probably go for another 20 minutes or more and still break new ground in this conversation. 

[00:39:59] Jonathan Powers: It's always fun to talk about and especially with you guys. 

[00:40:02] Howard Fields: Yeah, I have to add that our conversations in preparation were equally insightful. It's clear that three of us enjoy exploring this topic and very much relate to it. So I'll extend my thanks as well, Jonathan, for, making time, to be with us today. And, who knows, maybe we'll get a chance to do this again at some point in the future.

[00:40:25] Jonathan Powers: That would be a great pleasure. And I am a hundred percent sure that the world of education is going to offer us some interesting things to talk about in the coming years. The horizon keeps shrinking you know. We all thought that nothing could change education. Boy, the tidal waves look impressively large and there is more than one of them. 
This institution is not going to - none of them - are going to be the same 10, 20 years from now.

S1-E2 The Future of Higher Education | Jonathan Powers, Ph.D.
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