STEM education – Why the MailOnline is now a threat to current higher education practices

This past month of April has witnessed three events that are likely to have a very significant impact on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). First, Serena Williams, who is arguably the best tennis player ever, announced that she and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian were going to have a baby.  Reddit is a highly successful news aggregation and discussion website that currently averages half a billion visitors per month.

The second event was the release of the news that Amber Heard and Elon Musk had started a relationship.  Amber Heard is a leading American actress who has recently divorced from her equally famous husband, the actor Johnny Depp. Elon Musk is a self-made multi-billionaire who made his fortune as a serial tech entrepreneur whose ventures include, amongst others, PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX.

The third event, and possibly the one with the greatest impact, and which in all likelihood was prompted by the first two, was the publication of an article by the MailOnline on the growing number of relationships between celebrity women and tech entrepreneurs. Like everything else with the MailOnline, the title of the article is catchy and meant to convey the essence of the whole story: “Beauty and the Geek: They’re brash, brainy and (handily) have fortunes to make Midas weep. No wonder the new tech nerds are attracting the world’s most desirable women.” In this article, the MailOnline argues that “models, sports stars and actresses are all after billionaire tech genius boyfriends” and “in these internet-obsessed days, you are nobody unless you have a tech genius — preferably a billionaire tech genius — on your arm.”

The MailOnline is currently the most visited English-language newspaper website in the world, with a daily average of over 15 million visitors by March 2017.  Entertainment news, in particular celebrity news and gossip stories, make up a significant component of the website’s content, and,  according to a Guardian news article,  it is responsible for  up to 25% of the web site’s traffic. Emphasising the MailOnline’s dominance as a purveyor of entertainment news, the  Financial Times suggests: “If you are tired of MailOnline, you are tired of Kim Kardashian’s life – and most readers are not.”  And this April, tech entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, Alexis Ohanian, and others have just been added to the MailOnline’s list of newsworthy celebrities.

Why should the coverage of tech celebrities have an impact on our approach to STEM? Basically this – through the MailOnline and other celebrity-focussed online publications, news and gossip stories on the lives of tech entrepreneurs have now become staple news. And along with this, technology has now assumed a new significance. Through the lives of these entrepreneurs, young, and not so young, ambitious men and women are suddenly realising how technology mastery can lead them to a life of fame and wealth.  They see the lipstick smudges of one of the world’s most desirable women in the world on Elon Musk’s cheeks, and they realise that technology mastery can turn this fantasy into reality.  They see on the MailOnline the cool expensive gadgets that successful tech entrepreneurs own, and they realise that if only they can successfully implement one, just one, tech idea, all these things will be there for them. And unlike soccer, athletics or boxing, where only the very best can excel, no one talent is necessary to be successful at tech entrepreneurship. In fact, it appears that tech entrepreneurship is game for all.

It is therefore apparent that coverage of tech entrepreneurs on celebrity news websites is likely to increase public awareness of STEM to a far much wider degree than is possible with current publicly funded STEM outreach programmes. This is good news for STEM, and for national economies, but there is a catch. Traditional STEM outreach programmes focus on creating interest in STEM for its own sake. For instance, typical programmes aimed at school children are designed to showcase the marvels and splendour of science and technology. In such programmes children learn how to do fancy stuff with science and technology, with the expectation that such engagement will motivate them to pursue STEM study programmes when they go off to college or university. Such children become intrinsically motivated to study STEM – i.e. they now have an internal desire to study STEM for its own sake. Sadly, an unintended consequence of this is that these children become miniature clones of typical STEM academics and practitioners who are driven more by their love for theory than any other external consideration.

In contrast, people likely to be recruited to STEM by the MailOnline and by other celebrity news websites, are less likely to be interested in theory for its own sake. They are after the material benefits and social status that success in technology can bring. For them, technology is a means to an end, and not an end to itself. Such people are said to be extrinsically motivated, and this is likely to impact our approach to the education and training of STEM practitioners. Extrinsically motivated people are less likely to dwell too much on theory compared to intrinsically motivated people. Their goal is to gain just the necessary amount of STEM knowledge to enable them to pursue their goals.  They are unlikely to patiently spend three or four years in degree programmes where they can’t see where most of the theory-laden lectures are leading to. They are more likely to adopt a hands-on problem-solving approach, and any theory that does not contribute to the task at end is immediately discarded. Worst of all, they are likely to drop out of standard degree programmes. This is nothing new – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are all university drop-outs.

We are now faced with a big challenge in STEM education. Our education systems now need to adapt to this new breed of STEM students. Conventional programmes aimed at mass education simply do not work. Rather, we should now be looking at greater personalisation in our programmes. This can be achieved by enabling students to design and direct part of their own learning. Additionally, the teaching of theory and practice should go hand-in-hand throughout the programme. Students should also have the flexibility to take some time away from university to work on a real-life application of the theory that they have learned, and education programmes should have the flexibility to accredit this work as part of the student’s learning process. This requires a whole new approach to teaching and assessment in higher education. However, the good thing is that similar approaches are now being experimented with, for instance in  work-based learning (WBL) programmes aimed at improving student employability (See, for instance, the paper by Joseph Raelin). Hence, the tools needed to implement a STEM education system that is ideal for tech entrepreneurship are already available.  What is now required is the higher education sector’s will to do so.

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