Flipping the educational model for the 21st century

Education for impact ® by Lamjed Bettaieb, Deputy General Manager of Esprit Group

The standard model of learning still dominant across the world today was developed largely in response to the needs of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions, which required process-oriented employees to complete repetitive tasks.

Today’s world of work, however, requires very different skills. The Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions introduced automated production and intangible value, and these new drivers of growth have resulted in huge shifts in the ways in which people work.

Passive learning, focused on direct instruction and memorisation, can no longer prepare students for 21st century employment. Education needs to evolve by embracing new educational models that offer learners the skills to succeed in a fast-moving future.

Spotlight on skills

The key underpinning of all new educational models will be a focus on relevant skills. Henry Jenkins and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have identified 11 learning skills for the 21st century:

  • Play – the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
  • Performance – the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
  • Simulation – the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
  • Appropriation – the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
  • Multitasking – the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details
  • Distributed Cognition – the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
  • Collective Intelligence – the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
  • Judgement – the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
  • Transmedia Navigation – the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
  • Networking – the ability to search for, synthesise, and disseminate information
  • Negotiation – the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

These new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking. The necessity of mastering these skills means that the learning space – traditionally the lecture hall, classroom or laboratory – is no longer a place in which to passively receive information from a teacher, but actively develop skills among peers.

With information so readily available on computers and smartphones, education shifts from data transmission to developing the ability to think logically, research quickly and efficiently, navigate an excess of information and misinformation, and make decisions in a rapidly changing world.

A range of new models have been put forward to revolutionise education, giving students the on-demand skills to thrive in our accelerated, diverse and networked tomorrow.

New educational models

Flipped classrooms

Traditional ideas about classroom activities and homework are turned on their head, or “flipped”. Students do their preparatory reading first, and use class time – be it online or in-person – to discuss the material and put it into practice. Class is transformed from being a place where information is handed out to students, into a hands-on, differentiated and possibly even personalised learning experience.

A flipped classroom gives students greater control over their learning. They can steer class discussions, asking instructors for clarification where they need it most. When practising new skills or conducting experiments, students have more autonomy to explore new concepts in their own way, at their own pace, in a controlled and supportive environment, helping them to stay engaged.


Continuous upskilling is another way to give students autonomy over their educational journey. Micro-certification is learning in smaller “chunks”, such as through an online course from a university or other provider, or an apprenticeship. When a student shows competency in a specific knowledge area or skill, they receive a “badge” or a mastery credit to display on a CV or online profile.

Students or company-sponsored employees can flexibly build a portfolio of competencies tailored to the needs of their professional lives. This gives them the ability to focus their specialities much more than a traditional degree programme would allow, and opens the doors to lifelong learning.


Similar to micro-certifications, educational bootcamps are short-term, intensive and highly focused. Bootcamps allow students to immerse themselves in a subject, go deep and explore. By focusing on one subject, rather than covering a range of subjects simultaneously as in traditional education, students give a topic sustained attention, which can lead to differentiated insights.

Short-term, in-depth learning structures such as bootcamps allow for education to shift from being a system in which time is the constant and learning is the variable to one in which learning can be experienced at any time of a student’s choosing.

Along with offering a high level of flexibility, bootcamps allow students to be fully immersed in their chosen subject, giving them deep understanding. They also benefit from hands-on learning, allowing them to develop useable skills, while peer-to-peer learning expands perspectives and fosters meaningful connections with other professionals in the field.

Project-based learning

The era of a “job for life” is long gone – most modern workers mark their careers through a series of projects rather than years of service to one company. Project-based learning (PBL) is designed to give students the opportunity to develop skills and knowledge through projects that tackle real-world challenges and problems. Students are therefore effectively “learning by doing”.

They first analyse and work through concepts and challenges, usually collectively through small-group discussions. They then consolidate their learning by individual reflection. Finally they report back on their solutions and conclusions.

This non-traditional teaching model focuses learning on solving problems, and balances academic knowledge with its practical, real-world application. It also boosts critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication skills.

Rather than being a fixed, universal educational approach, PBL can be applied in different institutions according to specific requirements. Institutions can design and tailor their own model, gradually adopting the approach during its deployment.

ESPRIT (Ecole Superieure Privée d’Ingénierie et de Technologies), an Honoris United Universities member institution in Tunisia, adopted project-based learning several years ago. The adoption of PBL at Esprit has affected the curricula, and workspace, as well as teaching practices inside the classroom. The reform has also involved all stakeholders: students, faculty and administration.

PBL has been introduced after a period of planning and preparation, including an initiation period designed for 1st year students, and training offered to Esprit faculty.

During their five-year Engineering programme, students are continuously exposed to PBL, including through:

  • APPO: the first team-based PBL projects that take place during the first week of the first year of study.
  • Integrated projects: over the course of each semester during the first four years of study.
  • Project exhibition events: at the end of each academic year to provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate and present their projects to companies, parents, and the press.

Feedback from students, parents, instructors, administration and businesses is a useful input for eventual change and adaptation of the model, hence the importance of a continuous assessment of the approach.

To further guide these PBL programmes, ESPRIT has embraced the CDIO (Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate) initiative as the educational framework of choice for engineering education. The framework was originally conceived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1990s and ESPRIT has been a CDIO collaborator since 2013.

In recognition of its pioneering work in promoting PBL instructional practices,
ESPRIT was given the privilege of hosting a UNESCO Chair in Problem-Based Learning in Engineering Education in 2016. In this context, ESPRIT organised several training workshops on PBL for instructors from different African countries.

The UNESCO chair on PBL aims to promote research, capacity building, and experience exchange among instructors and researchers in the field of PBL in engineering education locally and internationally.

Today Esprit has its own PBL Model, which has been published in a book on PBL (PBL in Engineering Education, International Perspectives on Curriculum Change, 2017)
After ten years of implementation, the PBL approach proved to be effective in providing future engineers with the best training possible. It fosters their skills for complex technical problem resolution through multidisciplinary projects and teamwork. It motivates students by immersing them in real-life situations and by offering them many opportunities for autonomy and control over their own learning.

The teachers’ research, experience and feedback allows for the continuous improvement of this learning model. The department of training contributed to developing a culture that fosters best practices in PBL within a sustainable, continuous improvement strategy.

Large-scale international partnerships

Collaborative learning will only expand in our increasingly networked world. Just as classrooms can be flipped, they can also be vastly expanded, crossing international boundaries. Many higher education institutions, including Pan-African private educational network Honoris United Universities, already offer students the opportunity to collaborate with peers at other institutions locally or internationally. This helps develop many of Jenkins’s aforementioned skills, including Collective Intelligence, Networking and Negotiation.

Partnering with peers in other countries can also balance global educational standards. CAMES (Conseil Africaine et Malgache Pour L’Enseignement Superieur) coordinates higher education issues in the French-speaking countries of Africa and Madagascar. The organisation promotes cooperation, gathers and shares research and information, and aims to coordinate higher education to harmonise programmes and recruitment levels among member states.

Innovative programmes such as these, making full use of the digital technologies of the 21st century to cross international divides, allow students to understand cultural nuances and boost their interpersonal skills such as emotional intelligence, empathy, leadership and social awareness. They can also play an active role in the global community, helping to build a more equitable future.

Education for global development

Providing the global youth with the necessary skills to thrive in the decades ahead has benefits beyond the individuals themselves: According to the World Economic Forum’s Schools of the Future report, as much as US$11.5 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2028 if countries succeed in better preparing learners for the needs of the future economy. Embracing new models of education that focus on skills-creation is imperative for a sustainable and successful future for all.