Education in crisis

The fast pace of change in the digital age exacerbates the challenges faced by tertiary institutions.

Read time 4min 50sec

Caught between spiralling costs and the mismatch between the output of educational institutions and industry requirements, education is in crisis. This is not just the case in SA, as evidenced by the #feesmustfall campaign, but the world over.

At educational conferences, concerned educators discuss the causes of the crisis and possible solutions with a growing sense of urgency. Although the problem is well known, no one has a solution and no one can provide a coherent explanation or narrative as to its causes.

There are plenty of knee-jerk solutions. For example, one of the favourite "challenges" identified is the generation gap. There's the requirement to keep the attention of millennials and younger, who, it is said, are not tolerant of boring things. They need everything in 140 characters or two-minute YouTube video clips to remain engaged, like petulant children, and this is paramount. Education must become a Teletubbies episode or be gamified.

Reality bites

For a corporate trying to sell the next shiny gadget, perhaps this goldfish attention span is something that needs to be accepted and adapted to, and could even be encouraged to sell more things. However, educators should probably be wondering how they can prepare their students for the reality of adult life. The hope is that parents are doing their bit here too.

The crisis of education is resulting in many students opting for vocational training, and is placing increasing pressure on universities to become more "relevant". This usually means pressure to abandon their higher education goals, which would be a tragic mistake.

But, despite high school leavers opting for vocational training in increasing numbers, the gap between business requirements and skills acquired remains. Some of the responsibility lies with the mismatch of the vocation training curriculum to the trade or vocation students are being trained for.

Dark Age schooling

In the IT sector, for example, it seems tertiary training institutions are completely unaware of the massive shifts that have occurred in the IT industry since 2003. It missed the open source revolution, which even has the likes of Microsoft - arch enemy of open source - on its knees asking for forgiveness for past transgressions. Now, it has completely ignored mobile and the cloud revolution. The Internet of things tidal wave will likely also go unnoticed.

Today it is no longer sufficient to cover Microsoft and Cisco certifications only. A well-prepared IT professional needs to know about Linux too. Linux is the power behind the cloud, open source and the Internet of things.

With the major cloud providers running Linux and with the vast majority of cloud instances being Linux images, not knowing Linux as an entry-level IT professional is a recipe for unemployment. It means graduates will battle to find a job or they will be woefully unprepared when they do, despite the fact that they've paid a lot of money for an IT qualification.

Corporates expect graduates to already have entry-level skills required for a job, much like being able to read and write; increasingly, these skills include Linux. Corporates are unwilling to train graduates in the basics, given their experiences of entry-level personnel job-hopping several times in the first 12-36 months of their careers.

Education must become a Teletubbies episode or be gamified.

The question remains: why are vocational training institutions so slow to change their curriculum to the demands of the market? Many schools, for example, offer Java training but focus on Java Standard Edition and Java Desktop application development, despite the fact that Java is predominantly a server-side technology.

I suspect one of the main contributors to curriculum irrelevance is the monumental task of having to constantly update course content, find qualified trainers to keep up with the fast-moving IT space, while maintaining some kind of standard. Just ask any IT professional over the age of 30 if they are up to date on the latest 'hotness' like docker, core-os or open stack, and you are likely to encounter a curmudgeon.

Technology moves so fast, publishers like O'Reilly and Pearson cannot keep up. Pearson is facing an uncertain financial future as it battles to adapt to the changed environment. The slow pace of traditional, well trusted education publishers has left the market open to smaller rivals that follow more liberal quality standards with a self-publish approach and some editorial overview. E-books are the quickest way to get new content out in a timely manner. One of the best ways to keep up to date with the latest open source and Linux-based projects is to utilise books published using the same open source principles.

If training institutions are not responsive to the needs of the economy, it is up to students themselves to be more diligent in choosing their courses and training institutions. Students should do their research into what is in demand in the marketplace, and carefully consider the curriculum content of training providers before selecting a school.

Perhaps the one skill students should learn is the skill of lifelong learning. And perhaps educators need to realise the open source approach of developing software in a collaborative and public manner may hold the key to relevant vocational training and enable that lifelong learning required in today's economy.

Mark Clarke
technology sensei at Jumping Bean.

Mark Clarke is technology sensei at Jumping Bean. He is a Java developer and Linux specialist with over 13 years’ experience leveraging open source and free software to build robust solutions. He is passionate about technology and creating a vibrant and innovative start-up industry and culture in Africa using open source and free software.

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