Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thinking about demand

In response to a recent post about demand for tech-enabled learning, my friend and colleague Peter Ingle wondered how much demand there is for any sort of schooling--on-line or not--among the demographic groups who are supposed to drive the open learning/tech-enabled education upswing. (His full response is here.)

His post raises two issues for me. First, the "education crisis" is nearly always seen as a problem with schools, or at least with the suppliers of education. But certainly there are characteristics on the demand side that account for the differences in educational attainment between the US and other developed nations. What are they and who is thinking about them?

Second, we need to be much more precise when we talk about demand. There are at least three types of demand in this area: demand for learning, demand for education, and demand for schooling.

Demand for learning, in my mind, is that desire to find out something interesting or useful. It tends to be short-term and idiosyncratic, but also relatively easily met. So, for example, I want to learn about trail running shoes. I go to TrailRunner magazine or IRunFar, read a review, and make a decision. YouTube makes this sort of learning easy, but so do the library, Wikipedia, etc.

Demand for schooling is that desire to attend and graduate from school with some sort of official credential. Public schools, charters, private schools, colleges and universities all try to meet this demand. It is longer-term, and less idiosyncratic since students with the desire for schooling either choose (or are led into) a particular field of study and set of courses. It is also often extrinsically motivated. On-line schools are starting to make some headway here, but they don't differ significantly from physical schools, in that they both provide the same sort of structure--formally designed learning opportunities leading to a credential. I care a lot about school reform, but I have to acknowledge that schooling will always be fraught since students have so many ways to opt out, and since the value of schooling is uncertain to many (Peter's point.)

Demand for education is, to me, the most interesting. It is the longest-term desire, one that goes well beyond the search for information to the search for meaning. It can be met outside of physical or virtual schools, and it doesn't require a diploma as evidence of achievement. But it has the most rigorous, and the most student-driven, intrinsic goals. Its outcomes are the most significant for the life of a person and her/his family, because they touch on a person's conception of self and place in the world. (The School of Life is a school meeting the demand for education.)

It is my sense that schools and open learning folks would do well to find more ways to attend to demand for education, even if it means not driving everyone to graduation. This suggests that schools and open learning ought not consider themselves in a competition. Nor should we think that one should vanquish the other. Both will fail to meet the expanded demand unless they can figure out how to meet the educational needs of the publics they serve. If it is important to the student that the educational desires are accompanied by a diploma, then good. But we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that the biggest questions and struggles of life are solved by schooling or learning. They are solved in diverse and complicated ways by people who value and seek education.

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