The Future of Education: Everything Is Liquid

In a world where disruptions can occur at any time, academic institutions must be ready to adapt.

We're living in an age where we’re seeing the disappearance of existing structures, patterns, codes, rules, and institutions that once provided stable foundations in society and guided people’s behaviors. The late sociologist Zymunt Bauman described this phenomenon in his book Liquid Modernity. Liquids are characterized by ultimate agility—they flow and conform to various structures while retaining their volume—therefore, liquid represents adaptability, flexibility, and fluidity. The world we are living in has become liquid on many dimensions, including economic, social, geopolitical, environmental, technological, and educational.

COVID-19 has accelerated our liquid lives, rendering many of our plans and forecasts irrelevant. As trend watcher Li Edelkoort says, we have come to “an empty page for a new beginning.”

But even before the pandemic, our work and careers were becoming fluid. While people are living longer and working longer, companies are experiencing shorter lifespans. For these reasons, people are likely to change jobs frequently throughout their careers. They will need to develop distinctive competencies as they switch between roles as students, employees, contractors, entrepreneurs, and part-time retirees.

Despite these fluid times, institutions of higher education continue to operate in a state that Bauman calls “solid modernity.” The way that university education has been organized and delivered has not changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Eighteen-year-old students enter four-year programs in specific fields, live on campus, attend lectures, read books, complete exams, and begin their careers after graduation; older students return to campus to pursue additional learning in mostly traditional classrooms.

COVID-19 proved two things. First, such an educational model is not sustainable in a modern world where disruptive events can occur at any time. Second, educational institutions can quickly and comprehensively adapt when they face a compelling need. The virus has only underscored the fact that business schools need to develop a liquid learning model—and they need to do it now. 

Five characteristics

Liquid learning is a comprehensive, holistic, and interactive educational experience. It blends physical and digital learning ecosystems in innovative ways so that students obtain the highest quality of education no matter where in the world they are and what their current situations might be, as long as they have access to the technology they need. Liquid learning embodies richness of experience through experiential learning and is based on five guiding principles:

1. It’s multichannel. 

Multichannel learning enables interactive learning at any time and in any place, whether students are taking classes in person, online, or in a hybrid model. Schools that offer multichannel learning can easily switch between formats, so they can still provide a dynamic learning experience for their students even in sudden emergencies. In this way, multichannel learning is “liquid-proof.”

But to offer online or hybrid experiences, universities must redesign classrooms and equip them with technical solutions that enhance interactions among students, whether they are attending classes online or on campus.

Liquid  learning is comprehensive, holistic and interactive.

During the COVID-19 crises, teachers around the world learned to use many powerful instructional strategies enabled by technology. Through the chat function, they could provide personalized private feedback; through polls, they could learn what students were thinking; and through breakout rooms, they could facilitate small group collaboration and peer-to-peer dialogue. They could also brainstorm ideas through whiteboards and annotation tools, share content by streaming videos, bring in students’ ideas through screen-sharing, and test students’ knowledge through online quizzes.

2. It’s active and social. 

In a liquid learning environment, students have active and social experiences that stimulate both their cognitive and emotional development. When they’re in active learning mode, students collaborate, observe others, give and receive feedback, and reflect on their experiences; as they engage in social learning, they also foster human connections.

Active and social learning is enhanced through multicultural group assignments and discussions, individual study projects, multimedia cases, simulations, learning games, labs, role-playing exercises, presentations, networking events, discussion forums, debates, peer evaluation and feedback, and gamification techniques that engage the learners. Through active and social learning, students gain a deep understanding of concepts and boost both short- and long-term recall. They acquire knowledge, develop skills, and change mindsets.

3. It’s anchored in the real world. 

Because the real world is liquid, students need to unlearn old habits and develop new behaviors. Through evidence- and practice-based hands-on learning, students acquire specific expertise, solve problems, develop and practice skills, and create and share new knowledge. Once they’ve acquired new expertise and skills, students will be able to drive change and innovation; they will co-create knowledge and insights.

Because COVID-19 has accelerated the digitization of real-world work, students who participate in classes that include online components develop invaluable digital skills that will help them on the job. For instance, they learn to use digital platforms and work in virtual teams to collaborate and solve problems. 

4. It’s personalized. 

Today’s students can customize every aspect of their lives, from how they order coffee to how they read the news. It’s no surprise they expect to be able to personalize the way they consume education in order to meet their unique needs and aspirations. Personalization allows students to opt for learning in any place, at any time, through any pathway, at any pace of study, with any cohort, following any professor, using any technology and any type of pedagogy.

For instance, a student in Germany might enroll in an elective class in Asia that he can take online on a part-time basis. He meets with other international students in virtual classrooms where they’re taught by an adjunct professor and a CEO. He learns by doing when he undertakes to solve a real-world problem at his current job.

Some universities offered a few of these options in the past, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for more schools to make such options widely available. Customization allows students to continue learning even if travel bans keep them from returning to campus or if other unforeseen circumstances arise.

Not only is personalized education critical for a liquid world, it’s more engaging for students, which means it enhances motivation and drives academic achievement. While schools might find it daunting to offer extensive personalization, it can be supported by big data and artificial intelligence.

Personalization allows students to learn in any place, at any time, through any pathway.

5. It features faculty excellence. 

Whether schools are offering online or in-person education, the students’ learning experience will depend on the quality of the faculty. Excellent faculty “walk” on two legs—one leg is their deep and relevant expertise that comes from conducting research and being thought leaders; and the other is their ability to teach, which comes from a profound insight into pedagogy, an understanding of how to deliver effective learning experiences for different audiences, and a knowledge of how to use technology inside and outside the classroom. Excellent faculty also have the capacity to inspire students to approach their studies with intellectual curiosity, which will lead them to pursue liquid learning for the rest of their careers.

To promote faculty excellence, schools must require ongoing faculty training and solicit feedback from students and faculty peers. They must align their rewards and recognition with desired faculty behaviors. Schools also must develop a liquid faculty model that leverages a diverse blend of different faculty profiles, including researchers, adjuncts, visiting faculty, practitioners, facilitators, coaches, mentors, teaching assistants, and guest speakers.

Tomorrow's education

The future of learning is fluid, dynamic, adaptable, immersive, personalized, and engaging. It is all about the richness of the experience: curricular and extracurricular, social and individual, global and local, active and reflective, cognitive and emotional, professional and personal, physical and digital, supported by research and teaching excellence.

While this mode of learning has long been in our future, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the transition more urgent. It has shown us that universities must embrace “liquid modernity”—so they can not only meet any crisis that arises, but also prepare students for varied careers over their long working lives.

Prof. Nick van Dam is professor Learning & Development at Nyenrode Business University.

Prof. Dr. Noëmie Le Pertel also teaches the 'International Masterclass L&D Leadership' at Nyenrode Business University.

This article is part of the LES in crisis knowledge platform. A platform where we share knowledge and expertise to help leaders and professionals of organizations in times of crisis.