Issue #8: Education and Belonging

I’ve had a couple of work projects focused on the future of graduate education, mostly exploring the future of STEM PhD education last week. Education is not a field I have professional expertise; like most people, I have an experiential view of eduction. But coming from a family of educators and having several friends who are teachers and professors, I see a number of parallels between health and education. Both sectors share deep historical roots and traditions, powerful entrenched bureaucracies, rapidly escalating costs and increasing demands, and robust silos among nodes in the system (eg. early education, secondary education, college education, etc). But the shift to centering inclusion and belonging surprised me.

In light of the overnight shift to remote and online education in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, millions of students will have to change the relationships they have with other students, teachers, and administrators. They will miss graduations and other ceremonies that commemorate their achievements. Graduate school students will leave research unfinished, which will shape their job prospects. This shift could bring about positive changes such as more personalized learning environments that better accommodate neurodivergent learners. But it could also introduce new risks and challenges like the new digital divide as the crisis reveals how our current systems are inequitable and damaging to belonging.

A recent worldwide survey of Gen Z young adults (ages 18-26) showed that the top concern of American youth was violent crime, largely the gun violence seen in schools. Since the 2016 election, there have been a steady stream of stories about kids facing bullying or violence based on their race, ethnicity or religious affiliation as white nationalism seeps into classrooms. In 2013, the issue of sexual assault on college campuses dominated media coverage about a senior at Columbia University carried a mattress around campus everyday. The student said the mattress represented the burden she carried after the student who raped her on the mattress walked free. With the slow embrace of Twitter within the academy, some graduate school students who left their university before completing their PhDs append ABD to their names — all but dissertation — and write about the indiginities and frustrations that encountered in their institutions.

Without proximity and shared space, how does belonging shift in education? And what new opportunities emerge?

One area to look at is teenage workforce participation. The share of teenagers working while enrolled in high school peaked in 1979 and has dropped significantly since then. Although there are a number of reasons to see this drop, it appears that the intensity and demands of today’s high school education leave little time for non-school activities.

Startups like China-based AI tutoring company Squirrel focus on helping students score better on annual standardized tests. The system is set up to capture data from the beginning which enables personalization and prediction experiments. Automated learning creates a possible future where students can tailor their educational experience to their individual needs and preferences at the expense of resigning both privacy and potentially creative liberty to learn content and approaches that may not fit didactic algorithms. And presumably, with more flexibility in education, students have more time for activities outside of education such as creative projects or starting a business.

Or the time could also be used to make already ostracized students feel as though they don’t belong. Last year, Instagram released Restrict, a feature for youth to block user comments without those users knowing. But many experts thought that the feature was insufficient given behaviors like kids using Google Docs to bully each each under the auspices of completing schoolwork.

As college becomes more unaffordable, more alternatives to college pop up to open work opportunities up, especially for young adults from more disadvantaged backgrounds. In a future where alumni connections don’t carry the same economic ROI and feelings of affinity, college education becomes more transactional. Workplace options such as Walmart Health offer access to bachelor degrees and other certifications in healthcare for only $1 each month. Online-first schools like Jolt bills itself as an alternative to traditional MBA courses, allowing students to upskill without putting their lives and livelihoods on hold.

Increasing economic mobility produces a material shift in surroundings and relationships, especially in a world of broadening inequality. As incomes go up, more disadvantaged communities experience brain drain when those professionals relocate to secure higher paying jobs. Of course, in a world where fewer of these higher paying jobs are tied to physical location and more are remote-first, these communities could experience social and economic revitalization as these workers stay.

Coding bootcamps have been at the vanguard of expanding opportunities to one sector where remote-first work is growing rapidly: software development. Currently, the price tag for these bootcamps range from $12,000 to $16,000. A few startups like Lambda School have made it easier for more economically disadvantaged students to enroll in these bootcamps through income sharing agreements (ISAs). Students enroll in the bootcamp for free and pay back the cost of attendance with a small share of the higher income they earn after completion of the program. Recently, whispers of controversy about Lambda School have grown louder about poorly prepared or non-existent lesson plans, little to no feedback, and growing compliants that the experience was not worth the money. The school has responded by trying to silence compliants from past students and employees.

In a future where education is more commoditized, merely receiving a diploma, degree or certificate will not be enough. Without clear connections to opportunities to shift one’s material circumstances, the value of education declines dramatically. Online learning platforms like Coursera and Udemy have struggled to build the community and sense of connection that can emerge organically in the physical classroom. But the secret might lie in redefining new areas of belonging rather than replicating practices that were already not working for many students.