Sunday, March 20, 2005

Education in the information economy

Last week, in a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, by Penn educational historian Marvin Lazerson and co-author of The Education Gospel questioned the continued validity of America’s belief in education as a silver bullet for solving society’s problems, and as the singular force for enabling upward mobility and pursuit of the American dream. Lazerson noted that in their book, they conflated education and schooling, and it is here that an important point should be made.

Twenty or so years ago, as the new world order was opening up and the United States manufacturing base was visibly in a period of decline, Peter Drucker suggested that in the future the American worker would be a free agent. Gone were the days, Drucker suggested, of graduating from high school or college, taking a job at GM or US Steel and staying there until retirement day. In the future, each worker would have several employers, and perhaps even several careers. Drucker’s most challenging suggestion was that over the course of their work life, each worker would be responsible for continually upgrading the set of skills and experience that they brought to the marketplace.

The demands that this would place on the individual worker seemed to me at the time to be an intolerable basis for a social contract, and ones to which the American worker would be hard put to adapt. But Drucker’s prognostication has in large measure proven true. Today, workers have shifted from manufacturing to service and from low-tech to high-tech. But perhaps most importantly, changes in industrial organization have placed new demands on worker adaptability and creativity and driven labor productivity to unforeseen levels.

How has our educational system responded to these dramatic changes in economic and social organization? Over the past twenty years, college participation rates have skyrocketed, from the 30% to 70% range. Higher education, it would seem, has become a requirement for individual competitiveness in the new economy. Across the country, educational options have expanded in the non-profit and for-profit sectors with increased investment in community colleges and other adult and alternative education options.

During this time, however, our traditional institutions of schooling have remained remarkably unchanged, ill-serving the needs of society and of the individual. At the K-12 level, the No Child Left Behind Act is moving education away from creative thinking and experiential learning toward curricula and pedagogies that are designed around regimens of standardized tests. At the college level, curricula is driven as much by historical practices and faculty interests as by any new vision of higher education in a networked universe and information-based economy.

As information technology evolved, military study groups within the Pentagon considered the implications of military strategy within a networked universe, and the work of those study groups has directly affected changes in military organization and strategy. Notions of Network Centric Warfare inverted the traditional organization chart and challenged the traditional military to view the individual soldier as the focal point, or forward node in an information network. In the network centric model, information resources are organized in support of each individual soldier, information flows both ways through the organization, and strategy evolves from static to dynamic.

This shift in military doctrine and organization mirrors shifts in industrial organization described by management guru Tom Peters, among others. Over the past twenty years, large, inflexible organizations have been replaced by flexible, fast moving organizations that place a priority on feedback loops between management and line workers and customers, which enable organizations to respond quickly to changes in customer demand or product deficiencies.

So where are our traditional models of schooling in the networked universe? Lagging, I would suggest, lagging dangerously behind. The implications the emergency of the networked universe on schooling must be no less dramatic than they have been for other areas of society and the economy, but our educational institutions are hard pressed to think and change and evolve. Individuals have adapted, however, and information network literacy is becoming second nature for children growing up today. Accessing information to meet their needs is what students learn today, however they are learning it despite, not because of, the best efforts of our traditions schooling institutions. Education, I would suggest, is not diminishing in importance within society, but rather a greater and greater portion of the education relevant to an individual’s future is taking place outside of the classroom.

Here is a question. What does it mean that students go online to find term papers and essays to submit in school? What is the problem that that fact illuminates? Is it simply that our society is decaying, students are amoral, and cheating has become acceptable? Or might it perhaps also suggest that teachers have failed to keep up with the kinds of questions that should be asked, questions that would not limit the use of available networked resources but rather would demand their use, and require and challenge the kind of thinking that students need to develop in order to succeed in a networked universe.

1 comment:

DeanR said...

Can public schools adapt to this change, or do we need a different organization that's more like a business? Or more like the military? Business and the military seem to be more adaptive than public schools, and they offer alternative visions of the future of schools.

PS...where do you get the time to write all this stuff????