Monday, October 15, 2012

Tapscott: The threat to universities

The Global Network for High Learning is not a pipe dream. Leading scholars are already discussing elements of all three levels. If universities open up and embrace collaborative learning and collaborative knowledge production, they have a chance of surviving and even thriving in the networked, global economy.

Today, every university student has access to the most powerful tool for discovery, constructing knowledge and learning ever created. Like Guttenberg’s invention, it democratizes learning. Rather than threatening the old order, universities could embrace it and take discovery learning to the next step. To better serve today’s learners, employers and society at large, the university needs to break down the walls between institutions of higher education, and between them and the rest of the world. (From Discovery learning is the new higher learning, by Don Tapscott, Globe and Mail, October 15, 2012 excerpted below)
There are some very imposing, yet imperative hurdles needing to be jumped, if the universities are going to fully integrate new learning models into their portfolio.
Not only do "talking-head" professors no longer "spoon-feed" their insights into the sponge-like minds (memories) of their students, having fed the lecture notes into the database which can be accessed by students independently but also the walls between academic departments need to come down. And that could be a significant challenge to institutions neck-deep in the pride of each, "unique" academic discipline, into which all professors have been indoctrinated.
Following her oral examination for a doctorate in history, I heard a candidate exclaim," They did not want to know what I had learned in my extensive research which took me around the world; they wanted to know whether or not I was committed to upholding the traditions and protocols (and the honour) of the history department! I am appalled!"
We have become a process-addicted culture. Even a shift in delivery models is more about process than about the content in that delivery system. And we have quickly devolved into pawns in a monumental, complex and "top-down" organizational model that literally turns its students, its technicians, its salespeople and sadly its professors into "serfs" of the power elite. And no institution is more driven by a top-down elite than the university, with the possible exception of the military and the church. Ironically, while access to information has democratized the delivery and potential integration of mountains of information, the vetting and organizing, and testing and sharing of that information does not have the requisite institutional and certificational underpinnings that would include the constant monitoring, coaching, advising, critiquing and evaluating of student "learning".
While we have, indeed, democratized our informal access to information, we have not kept pace with the evolution of our university organizational structure, and the human components that make that system both relevant and worthy of the name.
For instance, some forty years after the creation of the community college system in Ontario, conversations about mutual recognition of college and university credits for courses from both institutions are just now having some impact even though students have been graduating from one and doing post-graduate work in the other model for decades usually in separate and distinct programs, in separate and distinct delivery models, almost like silo's of silence insofar as communication, sharing, debating and learning one from the other.
We all know, too, that in North America, liberal arts courses are dying like dinosaurs, given declining enrolments as the culture propagandizes the job-relevant skills of maths, sciences and technology. That statement is not meant as condemnation of those skill sets, only of the exclusive claim to relevance of those academic credits, as adequate preparation for entering the labour market.
If universities have permitted themselves to be victimized, or perhaps transformed, into "training institutions" for job preparation purposes, while also morphing into reservoirs of corporate funds, complete with strings that impact both the underlying philosophy and the specific research of the use of those funds, and there is clear evidence that this is more of the reality that the vision outlined by Professor Tapscott, then we are losing much more than we are gaining.
First, university boards of governors have to push back against the tsunami of both corporate control that comes with corporate "begging" and the even larger and more threatening conventional wisdom that job skills are more important than original thought, in disciplines like history, literature, art, music, and these studies need to be inserted into the curricula of all professional schools in greater depth and time allotments.
There is a real danger that we are turning the next generations of students into "performers" who have been socially engineered to fit a corporate brand and who can and will do virtually anything to 'fit' into that corporate world, and sacrificed the eccentric and the inquirer and the protester and the intellectual rebel, and the base of consciousness that can and does acompany only the immersion in the liberal arts.
And no amount of integration between and among academic disciplines, nor between and among institutions, nor between and among international academic disciplines, nor between the internet and the interface of student and teaching assistant (professors having retired to their research) will make up for the potential of those losses.
Naturally, we respect the insights of Professor Tapscott, but, sadly, regret the choice of the Liberal Party at its last convention, to select his name as the key-note speaker to that convention, given his focus on "managing" and not on the substance of the Canadian political ethos, especially in a party with so much researched history from which it might learn and adapt. A far better choice, in our view, would have been John Ralston Saul, whose insights, while never denigrating the impact of the technological revolution, have not fallen prey to that revolution, holding fast to more substantive and substantial original thought.
Universities, as the forging furnace of the next century's leaders, must recover the best of their strongest and most threatened attributes in order to develop "people" under their responsibility to those who now attend, have graduated and those who will attend their hallowed halls.
We reject, and ask universities to sign on to protect us against, a transformation that would replace the humanity of the individual with the skill-set required to perform as a professional. We have already seen this change in the business schools, and the athletic departments, in the science laboratories, and with the demise of the liberal arts, we will also see its move into the more traditional academic disclines like medicine and law.
It is the support for the goal of the maximum personal income that undergirds much of the consumer demand for skill-training, and if universities are not going to challenge that assumption, then how can we count on them to forge individuals who can see the broader, deeper and more complicated picture in any situation, whether personal, occupational, societal, governmental or geopolitical.
Let's raise our sights above the mere technocratic transformation that is already sweeping across the globe and preserve the best of original thought with all of its unnerving complexities in our universities, regardless of the delivery models adopted.
Discovery learning is the new higher learning
By Don Tapscott, Globe and Mail, October 15, 2012
Don Tapscott is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. His latest book is Macrowikinomics. Follow him on Twitter @Dtapscott

The university is in danger of losing its monopoly, and for good reason. The most visible threat are the new online courses, many of them free, with some of the best professors in their respective fields. Students are beginning to wonder whether to pay today’s hefty tuition fees, especially if third-party testers will provide certificates, diplomas, even degrees.

But cheap online courses aren’t the biggest challenge. There is a much deeper threat. There is a rapidly widening gap between the model offered by big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up immersed in digital technologies best learn. If universities want to prosper, they need to embrace a new model of pedagogy.
Since the invention of chalk and blackboard, professors have given lectures standing in front of many students. The student’s job was to absorb this content and regurgitate it on exams. It’s a teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all model and the student is isolated in the learning process.
But in today’s world, and for today’s students, this broadcast model is flawed. Unlike their baby-boomer parents, who grew up as passive recipients of television, today’s youth are shaped by interacting with digital tools and online experiences.
Research shows that because of this, young people think differently. They need to inquire, not rely on the professor. They need an animated conversation, not a lecture. They need an interactive education, not a broadcast dating back two or three centuries.
We can now use technology to free up professors from transmitting information to curating customized learning experiences. Learning can occur through software programs, small group discussion and projects. The role of professors actually becomes more important. But those who wish to remain relevant will have to start listening and conversing with students – shifting from a broadcast style and adopting an interactive one. They need to tailor the education to their students’ individual learning styles. They should encourage students to discover and collaborate outside the classroom.
Of course, a student still needs a knowledge base. One can’t Google one’s way through life. But what counts more is a person’s capacity for lifelong learning, to think, research, find information, analyze, synthesize, contextualize and critically evaluate; to apply research to solving problems; to collaborate and communicate. This is particularly important for students and employers competing in a global economy. Workers and managers must learn, adapt and perform like never before.
To help in this transformation, we need an entirely new modus operandi for how the content of higher education – the subject matter, course materials, texts, written and spoken word and other media – is created. A $150 textbook is obsolete compared to the rich information available online, both inside and outside the classroom.
The 21st-century university should be part of a network and an ecosystem, not a tower. Indeed, there is an enormous opportunity to assemble the world’s best learning materials and software online. This could give students a customized learning path with support from a network of instructors and educational facilitators. Some would be resident at the student’s own campus and some might be halfway around the globe.
Universities and professors should contribute to an open platform of world-class educational resources that students everywhere could access throughout their lifetime. Call it a Global Network for Higher Learning.
The network would have stages or levels. The first is content exchange – professors park their teaching materials online for others to use freely. The second level is content co-innovation, where teachers collaborate and share ideas across boundaries to co-create new teaching materials using wikis and other tools. By the third stage, the university changes from being a place to being a node in the global network of faculty, students and institutions learning collaboratively, while maintaining its identity, campus and brand.
The Global Network for High Learning is not a pipe dream. Leading scholars are already discussing elements of all three levels. If universities open up and embrace collaborative learning and collaborative knowledge production, they have a chance of surviving and even thriving in the networked, global economy.
Today, every university student has access to the most powerful tool for discovery, constructing knowledge and learning ever created. Like Guttenberg’s invention, it democratizes learning. Rather than threatening the old order, universities could embrace it and take discovery learning to the next step. To better serve today’s learners, employers and society at large, the university needs to break down the walls between institutions of higher education, and between them and the rest of the world.

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