Today’s disruptive changes in education – from the proliferation of digital devices to the availability of open educational resources, online universities, and badge-based certification – have the field abuzz like never before. Recently I had the opportunity to give a talk at WNET’s Celebration of Teaching and Learning on creating the conditions for innovation in education. When I began to prepare my talk, I wasn’t sure if it were just my perception that we are on the verge of something extraordinary, or if something really is afoot. In the search for a way to test my perceptions about education today, with its emergence from policy changes such as No Child Left Behind and sobering statistics such as increases in college costs and deeply disturbing high school drop-out rates, I began to play with the notion that we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel similar to what happened after the Dark Ages.
Perhaps what we are witnessing is the 21st century’s version of the Renaissance: the education renaissance. The education renaissance that took off at the beginning of the 21st century bears a close resemblance to its 16th century counterpart, during which a blossoming in arts and the sciences swept Europe for the next 300 years and led to scientific discoveries as well as significant developments in the arts. What we are experiencing today in education has been spurred by six forces, all remarkably similar to developments that led to the Renaissance. A look at these forces might give us insights into what lies ahead, if not in the next three centuries, then at least in the next three decades.
First, is the invention of new technology. In the 15th century, the invention of the printing press allowed access to books and greater literacy, which in turn led to the establishment of universities. In the same way, the creation of the Internet and its widespread adoption through inexpensive digital devices, including mobile phones and tablets, has empowered billions of people with the ability to achieve literacy and access information, including learning resources.
Second, is the infusion of large amounts of cash into the arts and sciences. During the Renaissance, patrons in Italy who profited from trading and banking sponsored artists and scientists, from Leonardo da Vinci to Galileo. During the past 25 years, billionaire philanthropists across the U.S. and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley who have profited from business have invested vast amounts of cash into high-tech businesses, which have in turned fueled the development of inexpensive digital devices and thousands of applications, including educational programs. In addition, foundations established through the funds of successful entrepreneurs have sponsored many for-profit and non-profit breakthrough initiatives in education and learning.
Third, is the emphasis on humanism, or the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind. For the first time, during the Renaissance, ordinary people, rather than biblical figures or wealthy patrons, became the subjects of artists. Today, educators, parents, and students place a priority on the personalization of learning, and programs are being tailored with an emphasis on the individual learner’s style of acquiring knowledge. For example, Daniel Hillis, one of the pioneers of parallel computing, is developing a learning map from the vast database of human knowledge so that individuals can access knowledge in a way that best suits their needs.
Fourth, is the emergence of a vibrant artistic culture with a focus on realism and advances in architectural design. One of the hallmarks of today’s digital culture is the emergence of a vibrant, highly interactive environment, where everyone is given the chance to participate. Digital architecture includes blogs, videos, tweets, Facebook and other social networking platforms that encourage the exchange of information and opinion about virtually everything.
Fifth, is the democratization of learning. Through the invention of the printing press, which made books affordable, and the rediscovery of ancient texts on science and mathematics, knowledge became more accessible to people living in Europe during the Renaissance. In a similar fashion, the invention of the Internet and accessibility through the affordability of digital hardware and connectivity, has allowed more people to get on the Internet, and to participate in social learning. In addition, the emphasis on freely sharing knowledge, through OER Commons and programs like Udacity, CK-12 FlexBooks, and courses by universities like MIT, has created a dramatic cultural shift in the way learning is distributed, open, and collaborative.
Last, is the creation of a process for discovery. In the Renaissance, inventors and scientists developed a process for discovery, which eventually led to the scientific method. Today, new collaborative techniques, such as crowdsourcing, collective brainstorming, and the open publication of scientific discoveries, has led to such creations as Wikipedia, PLoS, and astronomy sites in which millions of people with only a connection to the Internet can contribute to the discovery of a new star, planet, or galaxy. From Galileo to the millions of potential new scientists on our planet today, the new education renaissance holds as great a promise for the future as did its counterpart.
While some are quick to dismiss the disruptive changes in education today, I think we should welcome the highly collaborative, personalized, and affordable opportunities new digital technologies offer learners throughout the world. Although these same technologies create problems, they offer more people the chance to learn, create, and share knowledge. And like the Renaissance, the education renaissance can also lead to a more humanistic and connected world.