Re-Evolving Digital Education

I have a dream. I dream of a different digital education experience. One driven equally by academia, by the industry it serves, and by students themselves. In my dream no such separation exists.

THE VOID

This vision is not born out of disappointment with the product of the current local digital programs, although I am very frustrated. It’s also not born out of my blissful ignorance of what it takes to develop and deliver quality curriculum approved by the province. In fact, I do have such experience. Lastly, it is not born out of sheer vanity trying to be controversial in a city famous for its universities and colleges. I will gladly roll up my sleeves and help in this cause. None of these justify what I’m writing here. They merely provide context and insights into this discussion. This vision is born out of simple realization: The growth of the digital industry and technology has long been outpacing curriculum development and education for this industry.

THE INSIGHT

Take any profession like a lab technician, a secretary, a pharmacist, an accountant, etc. Now, what percentage of the skills they use in the first few years of work are acquired in some type of accredited educational institution be it university, college, post-grad program, or even internship? Depending on the profession, the answer is probably somewhere between 60% to 80%. Now take a local web developer or a strategist or an even game animator. What percentage of their skills were acquired in some type of accredited educational institution? Would you venture a guess? From talking to graduates in Halifax, it’s somewhere between 20%-40%. The ugly truth is the most successful web professionals (myself included) are self-learners because so much of their education happens either tinkering in their homes or right on their job. We need a different model. The way colleges and universities are designed was never meant to deal with such a quickly evolving curriculum. The courses are outdated as new technologies, platforms, and languages evolve almost every year. Their funding struggles to meet the needs of a competitive program.

THE DREAM: THE PURPOSE IS EMPLOYABILITY

Let’s start with the foundation. What is the purpose of this education? The goal of this education is not recognition or certification or even a specific skill. It is employability. The success of the program is measured by employability of the student upon graduation (within the industry of course). We think of diplomas and certificates as badges guaranteeing specific skill. What if those were not meaningful? What if these did not exist? Dream with me for a bit longer.

THE DREAM: ACADEMIA & INDUSTRY AS ONE

Imagine teachers and professionals are one and the same. Teachers are professionals active in the industry. It’s how they stay current. It’s how they acquire new skills and grow. It’s how they open their range of opportunities. Imagine industry professionals are always giving themselves to educate and mentor students. It’s how they contribute to the local industry. It’s how they network. It’s how they identify and recruit new talent. Curriculum is deeply connected to the needs of the industry. The industry is deeply involved in the curriculum. Curriculum is (in a large way) about how a community achieves growth in the industry. Dream with me for a bit longer.

THE DREAM: LEARNING EXPERIENCE

Learning and working are one. They are no different. Students work on real projects, competing, gaining real work experience (not to mention a relevant portfolio), and even getting rewarded actual money when their work is used in the market. Project based structure instead of classes ensures skills learned are always current and deeply connected to industry needs. Skills are acquired as student’s raw talent is engaged hands on in real work. They learn from the very people guiding these projects: clients, art directors, project managers, media agencies, IT professionals, and so many more people. They learn in actual workplaces, not in classrooms. They can observe and decide exactly what they want to do in the future. They learn real life skills. Most importantly, they engage with potential future employers. Can you picture my dream yet?

THE DREAM: VALIDATION, EVALUATION, ACCREDITATION

What if we did not need grades or diplomas? What if we simply saw these as means to an end? What if something else was more meaningful? In such a diverse and rapidly growing industry, is there really a single way to evaluate a large group of people? How else can we then grade someone? How can this method evolve as rapidly as curriculum? What kind of method would be both meaningful to the student and an employer? A strange dream this may seem but I dream it nonetheless. What does a professional use when competing for a job? A resume. What is a resume? It’s pretty much a list of work experiences, key skills, and accomplishments (including degrees). Each resume is a representation of person’s unique sets of skills for this diverse market. How could a program provide anything like this? How could a single program provide multiple “accreditations” to reflect and foster student’s unique set of skills and yet fulfill its need for clearly showing which students failed to meet program expectations? What if the program was crediting students through merit scores and accomplishments? Every project and every deliverable for that project is an opportunity to earn merit points and achievements. High quality work would receive more points. In fact, merit points would blow the ceiling traditional % or point grades have by removing a maximum limit to foster innovation, hard work, and promote teamwork. Achievements would reflect key specific abilities a student developed and achieved on the project such as: the planner, the project manager, the researcher, or the designer. Evaluation would be a combined effort of clients, instructors, and even other students reviewing the work. Additional merit points and achievements are awarded based on the performance of the work in the market with real customers. Student will graduate with a collection of achievements reflecting a range of skills they are best in, and a competitive merit score reflecting how talented they truly are.

THE DREAM: RECRUITMENT

The most beautiful part of this dream is that students would almost always be work-ready and quite likely graduating with a job already in their hands. With so much opportunity to interact with actual employers and such a large portfolio of work (ton of it even in the market), it would be easy. It would also be natural.

THE DREAM: ONLY IN ATLANTIC CANADA

I dream this dream for Atlantic Canada. I believe this region is uniquely able to realize such vision. We are very entrepreneurial and innovative by nature. We deeply care about our local industry. Our digital companies struggle with recruitment.

This dream is not for all industries. I totally understand that a number of more regulated professions cannot educate in this way. I do however believe in this dream for the Digital Industry.

The future of digital industry in Atlantic Canada starts here. We will succeed or fail in how we shape and educate our new talent.

THE DREAM: YOUR TURN

Now dream with me. Mold it. Change it. Challenge it. Contribute to it.

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