Critical Thinking in the Age of Disruption: Executive Education at the University of Auckland


One of my goals this year has been to try and put together a kind of DIY MBA for myself.

Not really a proper MBA, mind you… who’s got time for that? I like my marriage.

What I mean is more of a collection of training and inputs from sources outside of what I would normally have access to on my own. Things to help me think differently.

My first step was to take a course in Service Design Thinking through the Exec Education programme at Auckland Uni.

The university has changed a lot over the nearly 20 years since I studied and worked there, but it still feels very familiar to me.

I like it there and I really enjoyed engaging with the Service Design content. I had done a little bit of reading beforehand, but much of it was new to me.

Professionally, those two days have laid the groundwork for a methodology that I can implement over the next couple of big projects I’m hoping to be involved with.

Because the first course was such a buzz, I enrolled in a second one in March. This time the focus was Critical Thinking.

My relationship to critical thinking is different to service design, however. Service design was a new subject area for me personally.

Critical thinking though is something that I’ve been reading about and working on for a long time. At least since my studies at Auckland as an undergraduate.

One of the things that really resonated with me with regards to this course was what provoked it. This was two things according to the course facilitator:

  1. The requirement for you (i.e. me) to change.
  2. To enable you (i.e me) to influence, lead and coach others.

This pretty much sums up where I’m at right now.

I’m aware of the need to foster a kind of radical open-mindedness about what I need to be working on. This applies personally and professionally.

As Bob Dylan almost said: “The times they are a-changin’ and in fact accelerating more rapidly everyday…”

For me, this means I need critical thinking skills more than ever. So the course seemed a good opportunity to brush up on things I thought I knew but also expose myself to some new thinking about thinking.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the course spent a lot of time defining critical thinking. So I’m not going go over that ground here apart from to say there are some really great definitions out there and lots of frameworks that people can tap into.

What I want to get to is some of the key takeaways for me that made the two days really worthwhile.

Here’s one: The connection of critical thinking to the age of disruption in which we live right now. Here’s an illustration:

The largest taxi company has no taxis – UBER.

The largest accommodation company has no real estate – AIRBNB.

The largest telephone company has no infrastructure – SKYPE.

The largest retailer has no inventory – ALIBABA.

The largest movie theatre has no movie theatres – NETFLIX

Eric Schmidt – Executive Chairman

Alphabet Inc



If you don’t recognise where the reference is from, Alphabet Inc is the company that owns Google.

Here’s another below. This relates to the need for all of us to become better critical thinkers:

As we enter what has been termed the 4th industrial revolution (a period of rapid and fundamental change brough about by the convergence to the internet and technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics) there are a few skills that are becoming more valuable over time.

The 10 Skills You Need to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Future of Jobs Report

World Economic Forum 2016

I looked up this report… Here are there conclusions in summary form, by 2020:

  • Over one third (35%) of skills that are considered important in today’s workforce will have changed.
  • Advanced robotics, autonomous transport, artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced materials, biotech and genomics will transform the way we live and work.
  • Some jobs will disappear altogether, others will grow and there will be jobs that don’t exist today that will be commonplace.

Based on their compared the top 10 skills needed by global employers in 2015 when the survey was done, to their predictions. Here’s what you get:

In 2015

In 2020

1. Complex problem solving 1. Complex problem solving (no change)
2. Coordinating with others 2. Critical thinking (+2)
3. People management 3. Creativity (+7)
4. Critical thinking 4. People management (-1)
5. Negotiation 5. Coordinating with others (-3)
6. Quality control 6. Emotional intelligence (new)
7. Service orientation 7. Judgement and decision making (+1)
8. Judgement and decision making 8. Service orientation (-1)
9. Active listening 9. Negotiation (-4)
10. Creativity 10. Cognitive flexibility (new)

Keep in mind these are just predictions, but it’s interesting for lots of reasons. One is that the need for critical thinking isn’t going away. It’s just going to increase.

Another thing is that this need for critical thinkers is going to be coupled with a need for the same people to be highly creative and good a solving complex problems.

Things that disappeared off the list for 2020 include quality control, judgement and decision making and active listening.

I don’t think that these are going away anywhere. But some of this will simply be automated and overshadowed by the need for a different skillset.

Also, new to the 2020 list is emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility.

Food for thought: I’m writing this right now in 2018. This means we’re somewhere in the middle of these two lists.

  • How well prepared are you? Not for the next 20 years, but for the next two years?

If you want to brush up on your critical thinking skills there are plenty of great books and online materials.

However, if you’re after something more “hands on” that can set things in motion for you, you’ll find it hard to go past the Critical Thinking in the Age of Disruption short course at the University of Auckland.


7 More Trends In Education That Will Disrupt Our Work as Teachers


A while ago I wrote about 7 trends in education that will disrupt our work as teachers. Here are 7 more. There is some crossover between them. But 18 months is a long time in internet years and the situation in education is changing.

1. Consolidation

In New Zealand, there is a good trade in private training establishments (PTEs). Well, recently anyway. There is also a trend for public training providers to merge (at least the smaller ones). One of the organisations buying up PTEs is now a publicly traded company listed on the NZX.

It’s economics that motivates these sales, acquisitions and mergers. And hey, if you’re reading this and you’ve got the budget, then feel free to make me an offer…

Times are tough for some education providers. We are all expected to do more and more with less and less. The hidden side to consolidation is closure. Education providers will close if they can’t make a profit, sell, merge, or otherwise pivot. This includes non profit organisations.

2. Offshoring and outsourcing

Here’s how to do it. Develop and or buy a mix of face-to-face, blended, and online education products. Decentralise your training. Centralise your back office. Shift this back office (or most of it) to a cheaper offshore location. Others could handle customer service, compliance, accounts, administration, etc. In a completely different location. Like Manilla, for example.

Teachers and trainers could also be offshored and outsourced. This is harder though, especially if you’re funded to deliver training locally. But, there are ways of meeting this halfway. One way is to use a flipped classroom method or similar, with classroom based coaches and tutors.

3. Complexity

The education bureaucracy runs on rules related to compliance and funding. These rules become increasing more complex. This is just the nature of things. Compliance is a kind of taxation and inflation. Despite a few fluctuations, it always increases over time. This means that if you can navigate the complexity you can survive and thrive.

If you need someone to navigate this for you then you will always find yourself lower down the food chain. This complexity exists in all domains. So, it’s possible to learn the rules in one domain, but not understand them in another.

These rule systems are algorithms. And we should expect their administration to become computer driven and automated. This is why administrators and middle managers are being fired out of all bureaucracies.

4. Opacity

This is related to complexity. Humans are complex. So are bureaucracies as they comprise of humans (mostly anyway). Technology increases the interdependence of the parts in a system. And this increases complexity inside a system.

The 21st century education-compliance-funding-technology bureaucracy is a complex and bewildering beast. The increased complexity in the system makes it harder and harder to see the causes for the problems that we’re funded or paid to mitigate. This is opacity.

For example, in the field of adult literacy and numeracy education, the causes for low levels of adult literacy and numeracy are opaque. It’s hard to see what’s behind poor student performance. It’s a whole ecology of issues and it now seems impossible to separate these out with any coherence.

This is not a problem in practical terms as we can still see the effects and stage various interventions. But, discussion around causes (however interesting) starts to lose it’s meaning and value.

5. Automation

I’ve already written about the self driving car as a metaphor for 21st century educationMOOCs are another part of this experiment. I’ve written about our own experiments with this  including unbundling our training, how to improve MOOCs by embedding foundation learning. I’ve also done a podcast about it here.

But, automating education is fraught with difficulties. As it should be. Embarking on a course, doing a qualification, or even just learning a new skill is not the same as doing an online banking transaction.  Or watching cat videos on YouTube.

There are two barriers to automating education. One is that most of the automation models fail to have any real business model attached to them. In other words, they open source all the knowledge for free. This means that the perceived value goes down.

Participants often fail to complete since they have no skin in the game (e.g. money or other form of accountability).

Our solution to this problem is to lock up most of the assessments and the credentialing process, while keeping the content side open. So MOOC for us = “Mostly” Open Online Course instead of “Massively”.

The other problem relates to the need for human intervention in the learning process. People need coaching by people.

You can substitute videos and clever online interactions, but at the end of the day people want someone to tell them to do something, that they’re on the right track, and to answer questions and provide encouragement. Our solution has been to do this by txt, phone, and email.

As I’ve alluded to, automation of the complex rule systems that drive the funding and compliance machinery should be straightforward. I’m not passing judgement here. But in a system administrated by machines there is little room for fuzzy decision making, risk taking, or innovation. This means that innovation in education needs to come from outside of the existing funding and compliance structures.

6. Fatigue

Continual restructuring, closures, mergers, complexity, opacity, and increasing risk for those in education mean that people get tired. Particularly smaller players.

The education system is in danger of creating a kind of educational chronic fatigue syndrome where the troops on the ground are chronically fatigued due to overwork and the continual threat of job loss. Not to mention other pressures such as maintaining student numbers.

7. Risk

Education is a multi-billion dollar industry. Because of this investors including government, want to see a return on their investment. All investors want to get their money (or value) out as soon as possible. This is a rule.

This leads to short term solutions that fail to take into account the bigger picture. For example, are poor student outcomes a reflection of the larger national or even global economic success and failure cycles? Do these then impact on family situations, jobs, health, and other variables?

Risk is now shared all the way down through the system. Perhaps this is as it should be. I don’t know. But, it seems short sighted.

Organisations and people who are over-exposed to risk in the system will work to mitigate that risk once they are aware of it.

There are two parts here. One part relates to awareness. Education providers are only just starting to wake up to the inherent risks involved in having skin in the education game.

The other part relates to mitigating the risk. Managing the upside against the potential downside, for instance. It doesn’t make economic sense to have a million dollars in revenue if you are spending it all to stay afloat.

How to survive and thrive…?

I don’t have a solution. I do think there are some broad principles that apply. But, you’ll have to wait for another post.

MOOC 2.0 – Why the future of online learning is about embedding foundational literacy, numeracy, and learning-to-learn skills


If you work in education or you’re just interested in education you’ve probably been following the developments of MOOCs – Massively Open Online Courses.

Debate around the MOOCs tends to be polarised. I’m always interested in anything in education that creates such strong emotional responses regardless of which side of the fence you tend to sit on (bilingual education is another good example).

I follow Wired magazine online as they often report on interesting things that are happening regarding the intersection of technology, education, and design – which is really where I see myself working as well.

The other day, they posted an interesting article about Anant Agarwal, one of the founding fathers of online university education. Agarwal is an MIT computer science professor and the CEO of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-profit, edX.

The MIT edX is it’s own thing, but they also supply their platform as open source code which is being used by a lot of other universities and organisations around the globe.

Agarwal is aware of the criticisms around MOOCs. Some of these criticisms include, for example:

  1. How effective is computer mediated versus classroom teaching?
  2. Why do MOOCs suffer from low completion rates?
  3. How do you develop a sustainable business model around “free” content?

In any case, Agarwal is convinced that we are on the cusp of what he’s calling MOOC 2.0.

In simple terms, what we’ve been working with in terms of online learning is essentially a first generation product. What we’re moving into will be the next iteration of open online learning. Imagine if Steve Jobs had given up on version 1 of the iPhone because it had a clunky operating system or a limited set of features that didn’t work as well as he’d envisaged.

In the closing words of the article: “To judge a breakthrough technology by only its earliest flaws is to ignore all the good it might do when given the time and the trust to do it.”

So welcome to MOOC 2.0…!

This got me thinking about our own mini MOOC – which is more of a “mostly open online course” – and where I think the future of MOOCs and online learning needs to go.

Which is the following:

  • Embed foundational literacy, numeracy, and learning-to-learn skills into all MOOCs and other forms of online learning.

Since 2007 in New Zealand, we’ve been developing and working with a specific set of skills and practises around how vocational and trades tutors can embed literacy and numeracy into their training.

I think that this same model can be applied to online learning of all kinds. My hypothesis is something like this:

  • We will see an increase in learner uptake of content knowledge as well as course retention and completion if we embed foundational literacy, numeracy, and learning-to-learn skills into online content-based courses at the level of the learners.

My comments here apply to academic courses as well as more practically-based trades and vocational training.

The embedded approach works great with carpenters and hairdressers, but let’s try it with academics as well.

  • Why should learners in an academic pathway struggle with their work just because the professors assume they come to the learning with a pre-existing set of foundational skills?

We know these learners usually don’t have these skills, but often we get bogged down in not wanting to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It’s time to get over that and teach people what they need to know in order to learn what they need to know.

And we have a good model in place that suggests we can do both at the same time. This means it’s efficient and a value for money investment.

I think that the embedding model, which involves an explicit focus on the underpinning literacy and numeracy skills and content that learners need in the contexts that they are learning, could be the key to unlocking huge growth in online education.

I’m not just talking about learners taking courses on learning how to learn. What I’m talking about here is key principles and practices from the world of embedded literacy and numeracy directly applied to the design of all kinds of content-based learning, and in particular via online media of every kind.

By building and developing foundation level skills in a multitude of contexts and for the wides range of content we would be fostering life long learning both online and offline.

What would this look like in practice? I’m glad you asked… that’s what I want to explore moving forward. And that’s what I think we could export to a global market.

Any thoughts…? Hit that comment button…

Self driving car as a metaphor for the future of education

I’m a bit slow. I only just made this connection. The guy who invented the self driving car is now trying to create the self driving car for education.

His name is Sebastian Thrun and he’s CEO of a kind of online university offering free and subscription-based via their online platform. I need to unpack their business model a bit more, but that will have to wait for another post.

Back to the self-driving car though… This is possibly the metaphor for education at the moment.

There’s a fantastic article here on what it’s likely to do to the transport industry. Innovation and unemployment in other words. Read the article is a brilliant piece of analysis and I wish I’d written it.

This is now my mission: create a self driving car for my education niche… How do I start?




10 reasons why your adult education & training course has to go online or die a horrible death


It’s the economics stupid…! That’s my conclusion to myself at least.

  1. Education is expensive. This is because of high fixed costs like buildings, resources, managers, teachers. The technology for online education is now cheap.
  2. Educational bureaucracies are firing the middle layer of managers. In fact, traditional bureaucracies of any kind are firing the entire middle class. This isn’t an original idea to me. Just have a look around. If you are a middle class manager in some kind of bureaucracy you’d better start looking for a better job. Basically, you have three options. One is to look for a hopefully more secure job doing more or less the same thing once you get fired or restructured. The other is to become an entrepreneur of some kind. Or you can look forward to joining the under-employed.
  3. Funding for education is in short supply. Governments don’t have that much money to spend on education, so they want to reduce funding if they can. Or if they can’t they want to reduce risk. Large scale online education costs about the same as small scale online education, or at least once it’s set up the ongoing costs start heading towards zero. Who do you think they’re going to fund?
  4. Shifting education online opens up new business business models that didn’t exist before. Students paying fees works for traditional education. Online education wants to be free. It’s just information after all. Therefore, providers will need to think about new ways of generating income like subscriptions, consulting, pay-for-download products, advertising (yes, advertising), and unbundling the assessment and credentialing processes from the training side.
  5. Education providers that go online should be able to destroy their fixed costs by getting rid of buildings, physical resources, managers, and possibly teachers as well. Education providers that don’t destroy their expensive fixed costs will not survive the disruption. Providers that don’t change radically will be like publishing companies, record labels, music stores, bookshops, and newspapers – nice to have if you like them but not really necessary any more.
  6. Education is a risky business. Adult learners can be crappy to deal with. If they are not motivated or can’t see any relevance for your training they will vote with their feet. This means issues for you and your outcomes. The funders of public education actually want a zero risk environment and they’ll penalise the risk takers and reward those who can do more with less. By shifting online, education businesses can scale their training, deal with more people, and mitigate the risks associated with things like learner attrition.
  7. Education is traditionally geographically constrained which means your market is too small. You can only teach those people who can physically get to your expensive facility which you now have to get rid of. By shifting online you extend your reach to a much larger, possibly global market. That means your education niche should become a strength.
  8. Software will eat your education job. This is not really a separate point. But what do you need managers for if a learning management system plus a remote assistant can do their job online? In fact, what do you need a lot of teachers for if your learners can access the best teachers in your field by video online and anytime.
  9. The best teachers will become media stars. This is inevitable. Check out Sal Kahn online. He’s the model rockstar educator/entrepreneur for this moment. This is inevitable because of the next reason.
  10. The internet connects your learners directly to the best teachers. You don’t actually even need teaching institutions for delivering learning and training. Assessment and credentials is another matter. But think about print and music. The internet connects musicians to fans who can purchase music directly or through music platforms like Spotify and iTunes. The internet connects readers and listeners directly with authors and writers via platforms like Amazon Kindle Direct. When massive next generation global education platforms emerge they will connect learners globally with rockstar teachers and trainers the world over. Check out what’s happening with Coursera in the US for example.

These changes will benefit the learners, disrupt the establishment, and simultaneously make a whole lot of people both extremely happy and miserable. Agree or disagree? Let me know.

As software eats education, education companies will become media companies… but what about teachers?


I’d love to claim this as an original thought, but it’s not. Well, really it’s a combination of several other people’s original thoughts.

So here’s my semi-original thought for the day in the midst of all my work on our quality management system:

As software eats education, education and training providers will become more like media companies… but where does this leave teachers and tutors?

I’m not suggesting I have an answer, because I’m still thinking about it. But perhaps, educators will need to become more like media personalities. Think of Sal Kahn for example. I’m sure there are others.

This has implications if I’m right. One is that we’ll have to get a whole lot more comfortable with video and video editing.

Another is that our learners’ expectations and demands will increase. Which means we better start producing better quality stuff. And not just better quality content, but we better pay attention to good design as well

This could mean that niche education could be huge… I’d bet the farm if I had one. Plus, you pretty much do that every month of every year working in education.

How do you consume news and music? And what does this mean for education?

02 What does this mean for education?It’s worth thinking about… Just consider how you consume the following:

  • News and other things that used to be traditional print media.
  • Music

We used to just buy newspapers, book, and CDs. Now though we have a whole bunch of different ways that we can consume things like news, novels, and music.

Why would I buy a newspaper now (let alone a year’s subscription for delivery), for example, when I can get the latest news online for free from any number of news websites. Or, what I actually do now: check my twitter feed for up to the second information on stories that actually interest me.

Nothing like reading a real physical newspaper I hear you say. Well, say that to the newspaper companies. In case you hadn’t noticed. The newspaper isn’t what it used to be.

I still buy books. Occasionally, anyway. Often I buy them as Kindle eBooks. More recently, I’ve been buying them as audio books. I have a couple of books that I own as physical books, audio books, and ebooks. The main point is that I expect to have a range of different options for consuming what used to be traditional print media.

And then there’s music. I’m old enough to remember being able to buy vinyl from the local record store. I grew up listening to vinyl, but also bought cassette tapes as well. Mainly, I think I used these to make dubbed copies of other people’s cassette tapes. After that, I bought CDs for years. Hundreds of CDs.

And there was iTunes. I was an iTunes addict until about 9 months ago when Spotify suddenly became available in New Zealand. I signed up for the free account and then converted to Premium within a week. For about $12 a month I have access to all the music in the world. Well, not ACDC or Led Zeppelin. Or Tool. But pretty much everything else and I love it.

The main point here is that I now rent my music. I don’t own it in the same way that I do with my CDs or the thousands of itunes songs that I’ve downloaded. However, I don’t really think I care. I just like the variety and choice.

So… back to my question: What does this mean for education?

One thing is clear. The old business models are passing away. They are being replaced by new digital models that will disrupt the conservative educational establishments that surround and protect the old models.

Both the print and music industries have had to reinvent themselves. Fortunes have been won and lost.

Education is next… What do you think?