January 2019

The future of education

For our 2013 publication, educator Christopher Murphy addressed the broken state of formal design education, highlighting the boundaries that exist between academia and our industry. Now, six years on, he suggests a radical rethink for design education itself, proposing a model that combines immersive and digital approaches.

Illustration by Geri Coady.

It’s hard to believe, but thirty years ago I embarked on a degree in graphic design at Glasgow School of Art. It was an exciting time, the future was in my hands and — thanks to a government that valued the transformative potential of education — I paid no fees. That degree changed my life.

Thirty years later, the landscape of higher education in the UK and further afield has been trans- formed. Sadly, not entirely for the better.

The introduction of university fees in the late 1990s, and the upwards trajectory of those fees from £1,000 a year to fast-approaching £10,000 a year, has altered the fabric of education. Universities — once beacons of knowledge — have become businesses focused on the bottom line and maximising profit, a far cry from their previous purpose.

With the ongoing marketisation of higher education, students have become consumers, education is increasingly seen as a commodity, and a degree is often perceived as the outcome of a transaction. In this context, it’s little wonder that many are questioning the value of a traditional university education and beginning to explore alternatives.

Education is a privilege, but I believe it should also be a right, available to all, regardless of economic circumstances. As the cost of education spirals upwards, putting a university education beyond many, we need to urgently consider alternatives.

Is a traditional university education the only answer to our problems? As designers, how might we rethink education?

Rethinking education

We have incredible tools at our disposal, which we have used to build incredible products and services, but we would do well to consider how we might use our abilities to address the challenging social and cultural problems that face us, including education.

I believe we need to rethink education, democratising it and removing barriers to entry.

The web has fundamentally altered countless industries and it has the potential to transform many, many more. What can we do as an industry to rethink education? What does the future of education look like, and how might we reimagine it?

The last decade has seen tremendous progress in the disruption of education, but we still have further to travel. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) can put an MIT education in your pocket, and bootcamps promise the ability to change career pathways in a matter of months. Sadly, the promise of these alternatives rarely delivers.

Tools like FutureLearn and other web-based learning resources are incredibly powerful, but what they lack is the sense of community that a university offers. They also — crucially — lack accountability. MOOCs might be empowering, but research shows that less than 10% of students who start courses complete them.

Bootcamps like General Assembly and other accelerated learning programmes offer an immersive experience, but they’re invariably too short. While bootcamp participants feel part of a learning community, the idea that a complex subject like user experience design, for example, can be taught part-time over ten weeks or in a one-week accelerated course is, frankly, ridiculous.

Education requires accountability and it can’t be fast-tracked.

Towards a hybrid model

It might be tempting to think that education can be accelerated, but in reality it can’t. Learning is about developing understanding, acquiring new skills and — above all — forming an identity.

To truly learn requires learners to immerse themselves in a discipline, developing through an unfolding process of discovery. In a subjective discipline like design, it also requires the time and space to develop awareness through discussion with a communityn of fellow learners and, ideally, a mentor.

I believe there’s an opportunity to rethink education, embracing a hybrid model that combines the benefits of a mentored, immersive studio experience with a self-directed, remote experience.

By incorporating the best of both worlds — bootcamps, for accountability; and online content, for efficiency — we can build a model of education that is not only af- fordable, but also fit for purpose.

Does a student need to spend three or four years on a traditional and increasingly expensive university education? I don’t think so. With focus and commitment, a self-motivated learner can achieve a great deal in considerably less time and with less expense.

A part-time ten-week bootcamp is too short; but equally, in this era of rapid technological change, a three- or four-year programme is too long. A year of intensive, focused study that combines immersive, studio experiences with directed study using digital materials is more than ample.

Above all, there is no reason for this hybrid model to saddle students with spiralling debts that leave them crippled financially before they’ve even begun their working lives.

I believe we have the ability to design compelling and education- ally sound programmes that open up the opportunity of education to all. It’s time for change. Universities — often slow and cumbersome — need to reimagine themselves and embrace the digital opportunities ahead. Working together, we can rediscover the value of education, putting it within reach of all.


Christopher Murphy

A designer, writer and speaker, Christopher Murphy works with purpose-driven businesses, helping them thrive. He’s currently writing his eighth book, Designing Delightful Experiences, which focuses on the importance of human-centred design.


This article was commissioned for our January 2019 magazine. Like it? View all articles, grab our RSS feed, and subscribe to our newsletter.