Are we misreading the future? Thoughts at the end of Volume 10

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 December 2002



Abeles, T.P. (2002), "Are we misreading the future? Thoughts at the end of Volume 10", On the Horizon, Vol. 10 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2002, MCB UP Limited

Are we misreading the future? Thoughts at the end of Volume 10

Are we misreading the future? Thoughts at the end of Volume 10

We have all heard the story that if scholars from the past were to walk into the classroom of today they would be very comfortable because the situation would be very similar to what existed several hundred years ago. Even if we wire the room, little has changed except that we write on a screen with a keyboard and display via power point.

In the course of the years, many of us have also compared notes with older generations, younger students, and our peers. Often, for the K-12 system, we see almost the same content in each grade, syllabus by syllabus. True, we have seen some college courses, such as calculus, go from college down to high school and even into lower grades, in some advanced centers for learning. But, for the most part, education is almost in lock step on a global scale.

Even with the introduction of e-learning, the development of "learning objects", and a similar project to put education into cyberspace, we have an underlying assumption that humans, at the top of the evolutionary charts, are a finished product needing only to be properly programmed from both a world culture and content perspective. The basic human should, on graduation at each level, come equipped with certain standard "software" packages, reading, writing and arithmetic.

What we are missing is the fact that we are at a transition point. First, the medical community is beginning to understand that the youth of today are "different" with changes in their neural patterns due to their exposure to the multimedia, microprocessor-driven, world of play and education. They think differently, can multi-task easily, have enhanced hand/eye coordination, and other physiological features that are imparted, not by a Darwinian, genetic evolution, but rather by a Lamarkian, cultural evolution.

Not only are these students different, but also it seems that, in the future, each year may see the next "class" different from the previous one. The idea of being able to compare students at a particular place in their development or grade in school may be obsolete. One should not expect to go to a third grade each year, as one would to a work station in an industrial production line, and expect to use the same metric of "progress", much less expect to find comparable performances across institutions, globally.

The issue is made even more complex by the ubiquity of knowledge. Static materials, as displayed in books, are being complemented by dynamically accessible digital knowledge and ready access to other persons through the Internet and other devices. The number of youths who own cell phones is increasing, globally. A futurist, tongue-in-cheek, suggested that in the near term, if you needed an answer to a question, you could just ask your toaster. Wearable computers are extant and shrinking in size and cost while increasing in power. What a student needs to know may be substantively different today and even more different in the future.

We are faced with three emerging changes. First, what is considered important is changing dynamically; second, the skills that students bring to the learning experience are new, different and changing; and, third, what students can access and what they need to receive as part of their learning experience may be different from the past. Thus, it may matter little whether the faculty are equipped only with chalkboards or the latest electronic demonstration devices. Rather, the possibility of the relationship of faculty and students within a learning matrix, in click or brick space, may prove to be dynamic and evolving, with little guidance from the past, at least in the near term.

What Ray Kurzweil has suggested is that Moore's law holds for systems, technical and social, and not just microprocessors. The problem is that in the beginning of an exponential curve the rate of change appears slow and is almost a straight line with zero slope. Thus, change from year to year of, for example, a third-grade learning experience could be assumed to be negligible and we had the illusion of the ability to compare across institutions and over time. That possibility disappears as the curve starts to rise rapidly. Yet, as we know by plotting the logarithmic change on a log scale (log of a log), that curve, over a small region, appears as a straight line. Again, depending on the location on the curve, that slope, too, could appear to be very small, giving the illusion of longitudinal comparability. Of course, when the slope approaches the vertical, we approach a singularity or the now familiar chaotic transformation or "bifurcation".

Across the USA, for example, there is growing frustration with the public education system. The rise of alternative opportunities from private schools, to charter institutions and home schooling is one indicator. Some of these experiments are failing by conventional measures. Yet, often, parents would rather keep their children in these schools than return them to the conventional public system. In addition to these alternative paths, there is a new industry emerging in support, creating materials, providing supplemental experiences and expanding delivery via the Internet. Normally, entrepreneurial ventures don't arise unless there is market opportunity. The willingness of the private sector to compete for this business again points not only to the viability of the growth but to larger community acceptance and even approval.

Microsoft has made it known that it intends to enter the educational marketplace. The vehicle of choice appears to be a variance of their X-Box, their game console that competes with Sony and Nintendo. This powerful, under US$200 "toy" has just been "hacked", implying that we now have a low-cost computer that fits within the comfort zone of millions of "cyber natives" yet which is as foreign to most educators as the cockpit of an Airbus. What happens when X-Box meets "Simputer", the multilingual, under US$200 computer designed as the Indian subcontinent's "volkscomputer"?

Most educators have seen "technology" as another tool to be used in the education assembly line, a more efficient and powerful pen or pocket calculator. What happens if the technology becomes the educator, the learning book in Stephenson's The Diamond Age? We must remember that the education system has many functions, only one of which, the highly visible "one", is the instillation of knowledge.

Accept the following crude scenario. Let us make the assumption, for a moment, that the human biocomputer is like an automobile chassis with the education system being the equivalent of workstations where different bits of knowledge are installed and then quality-tested, and then delivered at the end of the line, the senior year of a university, where it gets the final inspection. Graduate school and life long learning, in this model, might be considered value-added, after-market accessories.

We know that students are progressing through the system and arriving at the university entrance, and even the exit, with basic skills deficits, including reading, writing and math, as well as more complex reasoning and social skills. The current answer has been to look back along the assembly line to see where testing has failed to detect a manufacturing defect. New standards are invoked and the faculty, like machinery, are checked and evaluated for their ability to turn out quality work. The factory configuration and manufacturing process does not seem to matter, whether it is didactic, drill and test, or constructivist, performance-based. The compartmentalized university is not much different. Defective incoming materials are sent to rework and, if found to meet minimal standards, returned to the various discipline-oriented work stations, each not taking responsibility for defective skills that are not part of that discipline.

If we have truly moved into the information age, perhaps the system that appears to be broken needs to be replaced. Perhaps the problems that are being "fixed" by returning to standards are attempting to mend a system that finally is about to collapse on to itself as the "bubble-gum and baling wire" patches fail to keep Humpty-Dumpty together.

Of course, this is the system with which we, and our forefathers, grew up and one to which we are attached by more than fond memories. For many, it's our livelihood; for others it contains our egos, our very selves. It is hard for us to think, much less to act on, the unthinkable. George Land, in his seminal volume, Grow or Die, points out that every transition creates a barrier to change. Those who are unable to take the leap across the gap are doomed, like Sisyphus, to keep returning to the beginning, hoping that this time the system is repaired.

Suppose that the transition is really larger than we think. Suppose that humans have seen only three major transitions, a pre-agriculture system, an agro/industrial period of 6,000 years and the new transition to a lower energy information age. The problems in the education system are a manifestation of the human feelings in moving from a world that has focused on the accumulation of goods and physical resources to one where information and knowledge should be more highly valued. We still see knowledge skills not as ends in themselves, but as means to an end, the old agro-industrial values of material accumulation.

During the Second World War many, who were refugees, had to gather food where they could find it. When the war ended, these individuals could not stop their gathering/hoarding patterns, a preservation reflex. Our education system reflects similar value systems. Can the education system change without changes in the larger values and concerns of a society? Education has been a values transfer system, certifying for the past. When there is a gap between the rhetoric and the reality, it becomes understandable that the system might shake itself apart from cognitive dissonance. Today, the education system is not an honest broker, K-16.

What is the function of an education system in the information era? What if it is dynamic? During 6,000 years of slow accumulation of knowledge and culture, society could create a curriculum that, though evolving, was a slow evolution, one that seemed stable in the eyes of each generation. Today, much of that history is available at the fingertips of students starting with their first access to the Internet.

The idea that a university was a center for research and that faculty and institutions contributed by being at the cutting edge seems strange today, when in the USA only about 2 per cent of research is carried out by The Academy. This does not deny its multi-purposed benefits. Rather it asks us to consider the purpose and value, in a knowledge age, of an industry, K-16, that annually generates about $700 billion of revenue in the USA alone.

The entrance of corporate universities, representing $50 billion a year and with a growth of 30 per cent as opposed to the traditional institutions at $300 billion and a growth of 10 per cent, speaks to a crack in the higher education hegemony, even before considering the private, for-profit institutions. As mentioned above, the growth of alternatives in the K-12 marketplace represents another response. Neither of these considers the growth of international competition through the Internet.

When the US automotive manufacturers woke up, they did not find themselves out of business, but found their markets eroded significantly, leading to major changes, consolidation, and restructuring of their business models. Education has failed to respond as if change were coming, or, rather, as if change were here, but not made fully visible.

Since the faculty who work with students in K-12 are educated in universities, the students who reach The Academy come from systems where university graduates educated the incoming class. Administrators, policy analysts, government officials and citizens who make budget decisions are all products of the university. If the system is to survive the transition to the information age, the change has to happen, first, in the university or it will happen outside the system, as is now occurring.

Home schools, charter schools and similar alternatives are driven by educators and members of the community who see alternatives to that which the university-driven system has advocated through its training, workshops and consultancies. Alternatives to adult education including "training of trainers" in the corporate environment access resources, techniques and philosophies that often eschew traditions promulgated in the higher education institutions (HEIs).

Even certification through the HEIs is being circumvented. Entrance to HEIs through paths that avoid traditional entrance requirements occurs regularly and the ubiquity of knowledge on the Web changes how students acquire knowledge or validate their skills. Thus, the final hold on a student, the degree, has been significantly eroded.

Please note that this editorial has been written as if the university were an institution and not as if it were The Academy, a community of faculty and students. This semantic shift points out a profound change that has occurred in education, already. The power for change may have shifted into a more traditional, industrial model, one that may be necessary to allow the university, and hence education, in toto, to transform, much like the cocoon phase of a caterpillar to a butterfly.

One vision is crystal-clear; in the future a university will not be a university. One institution cannot look across the table at all the others and expect that, because they are all thinking alike, the majority can be right and the system will stand. There is too much evidence, globally, that many models are emerging. Whether these will, eventually, settle on a system that others can mimic, like those who follow behind the innovators and early adopters, is too early to ascertain. Humans have always liked order and predictability. Alvin Toffler pointed this out in his prescient volume, Future Shock.

Fate seems to hang on the emerging culture of cyber natives who seem to thrive on change as we see in their worlds such as Everquest and their push for open access architecture in their entertainment and software. We see this in the early push for Open Access to academic research and the drive to novelty that it encourages. Most of us have visited historic "school houses". One might imagine, in some Disney remake of a twentieth century "Frontier Land", a section that is a recreation of the college campus, perhaps a few fraternity houses, a local pub or two, and of course a souvenir store with its sweat-shirts, stuffed mascots, and maybe a textbook and a laptop computer for those into technological nostalgia.

What does the brave new world of education look like on the other side of the transformation?

I have some ideas. What do you see On the Horizon?

Tom P. AbelesEditor

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