It’s time for the university system to embrace the spirit of Hanukkah
Postgraduate education, like Hanukkah, might be a great opportunity for proof of concept in applying a truly personalized experience
This past week Uber announced that it will be shedding both its self-driving autonomous car unit as well as their flying taxi unit, known as the Advanced Technologies Group and Uber Elevate, respectively.
This sloughing off of ideas external to the primary mission and a refocus on core competencies correlates well with the Hanukkah holiday, where the Jewish people similarly sought to throw off the new-fangled ideas of Hellenism and redeploy their resources toward their primary expertise and strategic necessity of Torah study.
The great rebooting or resetting that many now associate with the expected passing of the current pandemic is an opportunity for other institutions to also consider reassessing what they are especially good at and focusing on principally providing those services. One specific area that could use an update and refocus is post-secondary education.
University education, like Uber, can learn another valuable lesson from Hanukkah. Conventional wisdom often associates the holiday of Hanukkah with families getting together and lighting one or more candles, ranging from one to eight, depending on the particular night of the eight-day holiday, on individual chanukiahs, the eight-branch candelabra representative of the holiday. In contrast to most areas of Jewish law where many aim to do the least necessary vis-à-vis religious responsibilities, on Hanukkah its seems many counterintuitively take on the super-maximalist position (‘mehadrin min ha-mehadrin’); the minimum religious requirement is actually just one candle a night per household. The concept that each member of the household lights their personal chanukiah adding their desired additional candle each subsequent night as the holiday progresses is a useful metaphor for innovation in our educational system through personalization.
The idea of personalized education has been around for some time as a solution for the many ills of higher education. In recent years, higher education has experienced declining enrollment and higher drop-out rates. Freshman students are now typically older than previous generations and they have more complicated lives and different needs than in the past. If they don't see the value in the standard college education, they are less likely to start or continue, particularly at current costs. But just like the pandemic has provided opportunities for other technologies, there are now opportunities to implement personalized education and the associated technologies to implement it.
Big Data relating to the job market, predictive algorithms that can foresee employment opportunities in the near future, and AI that can manage the resulting convolutions of juggling the needs of thousands of individual students can all be employed by higher education institutions to provide a truly personalized and value-laden educational experience for the increasingly demanding millennial coed.
All these technologies come with their concomitant concerns regarding data privacy, data security, and even liability when they fail to produce promised results. While legitimate, these concerns are manageable and not much different than similar concerns in various other industries and sectors that are also seeking to implement big data, AI, and predictive solutions.
While different levels of education have risen to the task during the pandemic through integrating various learning technologies, albeit to often less than satisfactory results, post-collegiate continuing education, one of the fastest areas of growth in education, can really shine in this area.
Postgraduate education also might be a great opportunity for proof of concept in applying truly personalized education. Students returning from the real-world might have a better idea of the skills they need to acquire to succeed. And in the modern world, they are increasingly likely to need those additional skills and education post-graduation.
Technological unemployment, the idea that evolving technologies threaten jobs across many sectors is all but assured to increase, and new jobs, unimaginable only years prior are likely to emerge. Here, graduates may increasingly look to their alma matter to provide them with additional skills after graduation and throughout life either to maintain their current job or to seek new often unforeseen opportunities.
Experienced students may likely already know what skill sets they need to meet evolving employment challenges, and universities can fill those needs with highly personalized self-directed certificate programs that employ on and off-campus resources, both online and offline, all while employing various emerging technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality, in addition to the other technologies suggested above.
Certificates can be especially practical in these cases given their lower costs and lesser time commitments compared to post-graduate degrees. Universities with strong ties to industry can especially leverage their connections to provide practical and respected programs that reflect industry needs, not ivory tower expectations. Such programs can ultimately show proof of competency in a myriad of different spaces, each specific to each applicant's needs.
Universities can also leverage their academic bona fides to distinguish themselves from for-profit certificate mills that might seek to similarly provide substantially lesser quality personalized certificate programs.
It is possible that a new, national, international standardized credentialing system might need to be established to accommodate an education that will exist outside of standard academic degree programs. And, unlike many degrees, the credentialing system ought to also have some sort of required practical component such as the development of a portfolio of work to prove actual competency in the field.
One final Hanukkah connection. Ironically, despite the near-universal custom to have school vacation during Hanukkah, in Jewish tradition Hanukkah is the holiday celebrating learning. Our shared history of thousands of years of continued passing of information from teacher to the learner through directed and often personalized studies between the educator and student. What better time to reflect on the future of education.
Dov Greenbaum is a director at the Zvi Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies, at Israeli academic institute IDC Herzliya.