Education in the Digital Age

Academica Group is pleased to share the following commentary from Bob Gillett. It was recently submitted to The Conference Board of Canada as part of the work of the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education.  


Education today is trying to find ways to serve the most connected generation of students in history. Yet, in many cases, much of what goes on in postsecondary educational institutions in Canada seems to mirror far more the past than the future. Ways of learning have changed dramatically, and we now have access to vast sources of information. But many classrooms look very similar to what they did 200 years ago. At the same time, we now see individual students carrying two or three mobile devices and being connected to the Internet and the world 24/7, except for those times when such connectivity is banned by individual professors or institutional policies.

Their world is digital, and they interact with their friends and others through digital devices in ways that are often quite extraordinary. The thought of disconnecting for any reason is, to them, unthinkable. Classrooms will still be needed; however, they won't be used to deliver only lectures as is done today. Using the example of a flipped classroom, professors will become learning facilitators and will help students achieve the desired learning outcomes by maximizing the power of all of the technologies, while guiding their students through the morass of misinformation that exists online. Already, the Internet and the new collaboration tools are fostering participatory learning around the world. Knowledge grows as learners, through the use of mobile technologies, join other learning communities, continuously fostering, enabling, and enhancing the dialogue and the generation of new information and knowledge.

Today's students view the information and knowledge of the world as their own, and they google everything as a matter of course. They often check whether or not the professor is up to date with the material being presented, and they have no qualms about challenging the veracity of what is being presented if it conflicts with their digital sources. The disruptive technology of the digital world entertains and informs them and often provides an excellent way of expanding their subject knowledge, particularly when guided and encouraged by education professionals. The advent of the digital world has ushered in a revolution of change second to none, and it is expanding in both capacity and complexity at exponential rates, such that the rate of change is now measured in hours and days rather than months and years. We are seeing an explosion of data-generating sensory devices, with sensors being embedded in everything—from our clothes to our cars and everything we use. Big data and data analytics are being used to expand the information and knowledge horizons far beyond anything we have today, and they will enhance our capabilities for prediction and control at levels beyond our imaginations.

The great question facing education today is how best to serve the masses demanding a postsecondary education that is relevant to their career and life aspirations and that provides the life skills they need to survive and thrive in a digital world. Educators are hearing the critical comments of employers who claim that today's graduates are not equipped with the skills needed for a 21st-century workplace nor have the attitudes and aptitudes that will ensure long-term career success. Many postsecondary institutions argue that it is not their role to directly prepare students for specific jobs, but rather to provide a classical education that gives a student a well-rounded exposure to a wealth of knowledge, which can then be used to acquire the other skills necessary for work and life.

It is time to re-examine how we deliver education over the 20-plus years students spend in schools and institutions to determine if we can find new and more effective ways of addressing the challenges.

As always, one can argue either side. However, given the high levels of youth unemployment and the fact that there are jobs going vacant because employers cannot find candidates with the requisite skill set and experience, it is time to re-examine how we deliver education over the 20-plus years students spend in schools and institutions to determine if we can find new and more effective ways of addressing the challenges.

The digital world has presented education with such an opportunity, not only by fostering a dialogue but also by providing delivery channels that take the best of all worlds (including on-campus, hybrid, and online delivery) and allowing students to utilize whatever delivery methodology best suits their personal circumstances. This would require that all delivery channels have equally engaging material and presentation formats that cater to the varying abilities of the students, as well as to their personal circumstances, which may also require accelerated or slower times to complete the requirements. It will also require that full transferable accreditation be attached to all of the courses offered regardless of the delivery modality, and that universal standards be developed that would ensure global recognition as geography become increasingly irrelevant. The digital world offers, for the first time, the potential of virtual education in which time and place are no longer relevant and formal and non-formal learning can both contribute to an accumulation of knowledge that, at some point, can be assessed for accreditation purposes.

Although most of our assumptions about postsecondary expansion are based on life in the developed world, one must recognize that the greatest surge in demand will come from the emerging economies, where students want access to an education that will make them competitive in a global digital economy and that can be delivered to where they are living, as most cannot afford the cost of travelling to prestigious institutions thousands of miles away. To be part of this global competition, postsecondary institutions will have to reposition themselves as quality institutions with programs and services able to respond to the changing demands and circumstances—which, for many, will be extremely difficult given their current levels of digital infrastructure. One of the great problems that our existing institutions will face is the very fact that they have been extraordinarily successful with the current model and might not as yet see the need for a change—particularly a change that will require such a massive transformation.

As postsecondary education is increasingly required for career success at both the beginning of a career as well as during career-change re-skilling, it is essential that postsecondary education be as flexible and accessible as possible, utilizing all the tools that technology has made available. Technological solutions are the only option that can help meet the demand while, at the same time, providing cost efficiencies that will allow institutions to do more with the same (or fewer) resources. As an example, one has only to look at students involved in gaming to see how much time and effort are given willingly because the games are so engaging. If education could take advantage of such tools and develop, based on gaming principles, complete courses that would instill the required learning outcomes while attracting the same level of engagement, completion rates would soar and students would be far more able to compete in an increasingly digitally skilled world.

The Conference Board of Canada is doing a five-year study of postsecondary education and skills acquisition, and this study provides a unique opportunity for education, business, and government to put aside their biases and come together to address the challenges collaboratively. The digital world is here to stay, and if the public systems do not provide what the students want for the future, the private sector will step in. Just think about public education competing with Apple or Google, who could use their massive technology and knowledge assets to provide access to the best professors in the world to teach students anywhere, any time, without geographical and infrastructure limitations. Already, worldwide Internet coverage is just around the corner, eliminating what was once one of the major drawbacks to providing global education. With that resolved, private sector competition for education could be next if the world of education does not embrace the opportunities that are available for the asking. Before that happens, education institutions should totally rethink how education will be organized and delivered in the future and how they could partner with the leading digital companies in the private sector, combining their institutional curriculum assets with the private sector's digital assets to create global powerhouses of higher education ready and able to serve the global demand.

The Education in the Digital Age Reference Group has been established to furnish the Conference Board with access to leaders having expertise on key issues of relevance to the development of a national skills and postsecondary education strategy. The Conference Board's Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education invites you to join us at the next Summit on Skills and PSE, taking place November 3-5, 2015 in Edmonton, AB.

Robert C. Gillett is the former President and Chief Executive Officer of Algonquin College of Applied Arts and Technology. He was appointed President in January 1996.

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