I reblogged a post by Keith Hampson last Friday as a preface to my post about information abundance. I think the points Keith made are central to the arguments I want to present in my blog. In an age of information abundance, significant changes are on the horizon, and I have my doubts about the ability of universities to be either willing or able to adapt to the disruption that these changes entail. Last November, Keith wrote about the work of Clayton Christensen on innovative disruption and its effect on institutions. Although directly referring to the effect of e-learning and digitisation, I think these are only symptoms of the real disruption that is being caused in the change in state from information scarcity to information abundance. In his blog, Keith says “it is rare for incumbents in an industry to maintain their dominant position once a disruptive innovation has run its course“, and I have to say the the scale of the disruption we are facing in education is unprecedented.
This complete inversion of the foundational model upon which our institutions are based has to be considered a significant disruption. To move from a historical state of information scarcity to the currently emerging state of information abundance is a seismic shift. Higher Education has never faced this kind of upheaval before. As I stated last week information abundance has been the ideal state our society has worked toward for a millennia, and now we find ourselves completely unprepared to adjust to the new reality we find ourselves in.
New learning paradigms are emerging to test this change of state. Although there is no consensus emerging around what the learner of tomorrow will look like, or what shape the learning experience will take, there appears to be some ideas emerging that make some sense among the few academics who are considering the new world order. From my reading around the area, I see four groups of academics or schools of thought that are being taken when discussing the effects of information abundance on education.
The first group are what I would call the apologists. Although not apologists in the narrow sense of defending something controversial, they are working hard to defend an outdated traditional system and model. The thinking around the defence of the traditional model goes something like this: there is simply so much information available that it takes an expert to put proper boundaries, organisation, and perspective on or around some corpus of knowledge for the learner. This is essentially saying that although there was a time when the expert (or institution) was the only person (or place) where a person could find the necessary information in order to learn, that we should continue doing what we do (and have done for a very long time) because as experts, we are the only ones who can define and organise the information that can potentially overwhelm the novice. In other words, we need to keep doing what we have always done, and here is a good reason why. That’s why I call them apologists – maybe there is change coming, but we need to keep doing exactly what we have always done, because that is what is needed.
The second group that I constantly hear and read about (maybe because, as an academic, I go to too many learning technologist conferences) is the “technology will take care of it” refrain. That isn’t really a strategy or answer. It may eventually turn out to be true, in fact, I think it is likely, but that is not an answer as to where we should be going with our learning philosophies and models.
I think the third group I have been able to identify have the most traction, even though I think they are only partially right. This group are staunch advocates of experiential learning. Michael Wesch and Diana Laufenberg fall into this group. Certainly the experiential learning movement is a better solution than the one advocated by the apologists, but I think they are missing the point. I think that experiential learning will play a critical part in the learning landscape that will emerge in the age of information abundance. However, I believe that the fourth group encompasses experiential learning, and better predicts the topography of what will eventually emerge.
The fourth group (of which I am an adherent) believes that the post-secondary educational world will focus on skills. Although HE institutions are currently organised around subject areas, few employers are actually interested in the “stuff” students learn, rather they are interested in what students can do. Numeracy, communications, thinking, IT, and on and on. That is what employers want. There just are not that many employers who need graduates who know how a neurone works, but many employers are be interested in a person who can clearly explain or model how a neurone works. Forty percent of the jobs our HE graduates will be doing in five years haven’t even been invented yet. So what are we preparing our students for? It isn’t here yet. What we can give them are the skills that will prepare them for wherever they find themselves.
I think experiential learning can play its part in that process, but a new, or renewed focus on the higher thinking skills that the higher in HE stands for is the key. Critical analysis is critical analysis whether it occurs in history or in a scientific paper. The evaluation of evidence is a skill in education, nursing, or physics. Clear and concise writing is the same in the technical field as it is in the humanities. These skills are vitally important, and highly valued, in our world today, and yet, we insist on focusing on content in our organisation, our methods, and in our teaching. The content is important as a delivery vehicle for the skills graduates need, not as an end in and of itself. This doesn’t mean that some students won’t go on to become specialists in a field, but the number of specialists needed in any field is limited.
We live in exciting times, and whether or not universities survive as recognisable institutions remains to be seen. However, we need to think, debate and plan different approaches that will lay the foundation of whatever emerges as the new learning paradigm.