Fundamental Changes in Education

By 20/12/2017 March 12th, 2020 Education, Technology Enhanced Learning

Structural changes in the economy: the growth of a knowledge society

In the digital age, we are now surrounded by technology. We could now call it a full immersion, or aggressively: an invasion. To compound the situation, the rate of technological change shows no sign of slowing down. Technology is leading to massive changes in the economy, in how we communicate and relate to one another, and increasingly in the way we learn. Yet our educational institutions are still working under the context of a previous age, based around an industrial rather than a digital era.

Therefore, as teachers, lecturers and instructors we are faced with the continual challenge of change. How can we ensure that we are developing the kinds of learners from our courses and programmes that are fit for an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous future? What should we continue to maintain within our pedagogy and what needs to change?

From a teaching perspective the biggest impact is proving to be in the technical and vocational instructors and students, where the knowledge component of formerly mainly manual skills is expanding rapidly. Particularly in the trades areas, plumbers, welders, electricians, car mechanics and other trade-related workers are needing to be problem-solvers, IT specialists and increasingly self-employed business people, as well as having the manual skills associated with their profession.

Another consequence of the growth in knowledge-based work is the need for more people with higher levels of education than previously, resulting in a demand for more highly qualified workers at a university level. However, even at a university level, the type of knowledge and skills required of graduates is also changing.

There are certain common features of knowledge-based workers in a digital age:

  • they usually work in smaller companies (less than 10 people);
  • they sometimes own their own business, or are their own boss; sometimes they have created their own job, which didn’t exist until they worked out there was a need and they could meet that need;
  • they often work on contract or are self-employed, so they move around from one job to another fairly frequently;
  • the nature of their work tends to change over time, in response to market and technological developments and thus the knowledge base of their work tends to change rapidly;
  • they are digitally intelligent or at least digitally competent; with digital technology often being a key component of their work;
  • because they often work for themselves or in small companies, they play many roles: marketer, designer, salesperson, accountant/business manager, technical support, for example;
  • they depend heavily on informal social networks to bring in business and to keep up to date with current trends in their area of work;
  • they need to keep on learning to stay on top in their work, and they need to manage that learning for themselves;
  • above all, they need to be flexible, to adapt to rapidly changing conditions around them.

It can be easily argued that it is very difficult to predict with any true accuracy what many graduates will actually be doing ten or so years after graduation, except in very broad terms. Even in areas where there are clear professional tracks, such as medicine, nursing or engineering, the knowledge base and even the working conditions are likely to undergo rapid change and transformation over that period of time.

The skills needed in a digital age

Knowledge involves two strongly inter-linked but distinctly different components: content and skills. Content will typically include facts, ideas, principles, evidence, and descriptions of processes or procedures. Most educators are well trained in delivering content and have a competent understanding of the subject areas in which they are teaching. Expertise in skills development however, is a different matter. The issue here is not so much that educators do not help students develop skills – they do – but whether these skills match the needs of knowledge-based workers, and whether enough emphasis is given to skills development within the curriculum.

The skills required in a knowledge society include the following (adapted from Conference Board of Canada, 2014):

  • communications skills: moving beyond the traditional communication skills of reading, speaking and writing coherently and clearly, we now need to add social media communication skills to this category. These might include the ability to create a short YouTube video to capture a demonstration of a process or to make a sales pitch, the ability to reach out through the internet to a specific community of people with ideas, to receive and incorporate feedback, to share information appropriately, and to identify trends and ideas from elsewhere;
  • the ability to learn independently: this refers to taking responsibility for working out what you need to know, and where to find that knowledge. This is an ongoing process in knowledge-based work, because the knowledge base is constantly changing. Incidentally I am not talking here necessarily of academic knowledge, although that too is changing; it could be learning about new equipment, new ways of doing things, or learning who the people are that you need to know in order to get the job done;
  • ethics and responsibility: this is essential to build trust (of particular importance in reference to informal social networks), but also because generally it is good practice in a world where there are many different players, and a greater need to rely on others in order to accomplish one’s own goals;
  • teamwork and flexibility: although many knowledge workers may work independently or in very small companies, they all depend heavily on collaboration and the sharing of knowledge with others in related but independent organisations. In smaller companies, it is crucial that all employees work closely together, share the same vision for a company and help each other out. In particular, knowledge workers need to know how to work collaboratively, virtually and at a distance, with colleagues, clients and partners. This ‘pooling’ of collective knowledge, problem-solving and implementation requires teamwork and flexibility in taking on tasks or solving problems that may be outside a narrow job definition but necessary for success;
  • thinking skills (this includes critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, originality, strategising): of all the skills needed in a knowledge-based society, these are some of the most important. Businesses are increasingly dependent on the creation of new products, new services and new processes to keep down costs and increase competitiveness. Universities in particular have always prided themselves on teaching such intellectual skills, but the move to larger classes and more information transmission, especially at the undergraduate level, challenges this assumption. Furthermore, it is not just in the senior management positions that these skills are required. Trades people in particular are increasingly having to be problem-solvers rather than following standard processes, which tend to become automated;
  • digital skills: most knowledge-based activities will depend heavily on the use of technology. However the key issue is that these skills need to be embedded within the knowledge domain in which the activity takes place. This can include for example, housing estate agents knowing how to use geographical information systems to identify sales trends and prices in different geographical locations, welders knowing how to use computers to control robots examining and repairing pipes, radiologists knowing how to use new technologies that ‘read’ and analyse MRI scans. Thus the use of digital technology needs to be integrated with and evaluated through the knowledge-base of the subject area;
  • knowledge management: this is perhaps the most over-arching of all the skills. Knowledge is not only continually changing with new research, new developments, and the rapid dissemination of ideas and practices over the Internet, but the sources of information are also increasing, with a great deal of variability in the reliability or validity of the information. The knowledge that an engineer learns at university can and most likely will quickly become obsolete. There is so much information now in the health area that it is impossible for a medical student to master all the drug treatments, medical procedures and emerging science such as genetic engineering, even within an university undergraduate programme. The key skill in a knowledge-based society is knowledge management: learn the skills to help you how to find, evaluate, analyse, apply and disseminate information, within your particular context. This is a skill that graduates will need to employ long after graduation.

Should education be tied directly to the employment market?

There is a real danger in joining university, college and schools programmes too closely to immediate employment market needs. Employment market demand can change very quickly, and in particular, in a knowledge-based society, it is impossible to predict what types of work, business or trades will emerge in the future.

The focus on the skills needed in a digital society raises questions about the purpose of universities in particular, but also schools and Further Education Colleges to some extent. Is their purpose to provide ready-skilled employees for the work-force? The rapid expansion in higher education is largely driven by government, employers and parents wanting a work-force that is employable, competitive and if possible, affluent. Preparing professional workers has always been one role for tertiary education.

Secondly, focusing on the skills required for a knowledge-based society reinforces the kind of learning, especially the development of intellectual skills, for which universities have taken great pride in the past. In this kind of market, it is critical to serve the learning needs of the individual rather than specific companies or employment sectors. To survive in the current employment market, learners need to be flexible and adaptable, and should be able to work just as much for themselves as for corporations that increasingly have a very short operational life. The challenge therefore is not re-purposing education, but making sure it meets that purpose more effectively.

Change and continuity

Universities are, at their core, about the creation, evaluation, maintenance and dissemination of knowledge.  This role in society holds even more importance today than it did in the past. For universities to perform this role in the way required of them, though, certain conditions are necessary. Firstly, they need a level of autonomy. The potential value of new knowledge is particularly difficult to predict in advance. From one perspective, universities provide society with a safe way of gambling on the future, by encouraging innovative research and development that may have no immediate short-term benefits, or may lead nowhere, without incurring major commercial or social loss. Another crucial role of the university is to provide the ability to challenge the assumptions or positions of powerful agencies outside the university, such as government or industry, when these seem to be in conflict with empirical evidence, or ethical principles, or the general good of society.

Perhaps even more importantly, there are principles that will distinguish academic knowledge from everyday knowledge, such as rules of logic and reasoning; the ability to move between the abstract and the concrete; ideas supported by empirical evidence or external validation (Laurillard, 2001). We have the expectation that our universities will operate at a higher level of thinking than we as individuals or businesses can do in our everyday lives.

One of the core values that has helped to sustain universities is academic freedom. Academics who ask awkward questions, who challenge the status quo, who conduct research that contradicts statements made by government or corporations, are protected from dismissal or punishment within the institution for expressing such views. Academic freedom is an essential condition within a free society. However, it also means that academics are free to choose what they study, and how best to disseminate that knowledge. University teaching therefore, is bound up within the concept of academic freedom and autonomy, even though some of the conditions that protect this autonomy, such as tenure or a job for life, are increasingly under pressure.

This point is important for one reason  alone. If universities are to change to meet the changing external pressures, then this change must come from within the university, and in particular from the professors and lecturers themselves. It is the academic staff that must see the need for change, and be willing to engage with those changes. If a government or a society as a whole tries to enforce changes from outside, especially in a way that challenges the core values of a university such as academic freedom, then there is a grave risk that the very thing that makes universities a unique and valuable component of society will be destroyed, thus making them much less valuable to society.

Schools and Further Education Colleges are in a considerably different position. It is easier (although not that easy) to impose change from above or through forces from outside the institution, such as government. However, as the literature on change management clearly indicates (Weiner, 2009), change can occur more consistently and more deeply when those implementing change understand the need for it and, most importantly, have a desire to change. In many ways then, schools, further education colleges and universities ultimately face the same challenge: how to change while preserving the integrity of the institution and what it stands for.

Moving from Alternative to Mainstream: How Technology has Changed the Way We Teach

Credit-based online learning is now becoming a major and central activity of most academic departments in universities, FE colleges and to some extent even in school education. This choice can be a good thing – we can tailor learnign to our specific needs or employment requirements. Enrolments in fully online courses (i.e. distance education courses) now constitute between a quarter and a third of all post-secondary enrolments in the USA (Allen and Seaman, 2014). Online learning enrolments have been increasing by between 10-20 per cent per annum for the last 15 years or so in North America, compared with an increase in campus-based enrolments of around 2-3 per cent per annum. Fully online learning then is now a key component of many education systems.

As more educators become more involved with online learning, they will realise that much of what has traditionally been completed in class can be done equally well or better online. As a result, educators have been gradually introducing more online study elements into their classroom teaching. In many instances, this can complement in-classroom teaching, but it is also to take advantage of the development of ‘anywhere/anytime learning’.  Learning management systems can be used to store lecture notes in the form of slides or PDFs, links to online readings may be provided, or online forums for discussion may be established. Although, it would be a feature of most educational centres that their LMS is more than a glorified online file dumping area! Thus online learning is gradually blended with face-to-face teaching, but without changing the basic classroom teaching model. Here online learning is being used as a supplement to traditional teaching. Although there is no standard or commonly agreed definitions in this area, I will use the term ‘blended learning’ for this use of technology.

More recently, though, lecture capture has resulted in instructors realising that if the lecture is recorded, students could view this in their own time, which means that classroom time could be used for more interactive sessions. This model has become known as the ‘flipped classroom’. Some educational institutions are now developing plans to move a substantial part of their teaching into more blended or flexible modes. For example, Queens University now offer certain Masters programmes solely online. A traditional classroom-based tutorial only happens on one agreed day per module, per semester because of the online nature of the course, and the geographical spread of students – it is not appropriate to ask students to travel, in some cases, thousands of miles, for what can be received to just as high a level, in an online forum.

Another increasingly important development linked to online learning is the move to more open education. Over the last 10 years there have been many developments in open learning that are now beginning to impact directly on conventional institutions. The most immediate is open textbooks – which I talk about in more detail here. Open textbooks are digital textbooks that can be downloaded in a digital format by students (or teachers) for free, thus saving students considerable money on textbooks.

Open educational resources (OER) are another recent development in open education (talked about in more detail here). These are digital educational materials freely available over the Internet that can be downloaded by instructors (or students) without charge, and if necessary adapted or amended, under a Creative Commons license that provides protections for the creators of the material. Probably the best known source of OER is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology OpenCourseWare project. With individual professors’ permission, MIT has made available for free downloading over the Internet video lectures recorded with lecture capture as well as supporting materials such as slides.

One of the main developments in recent online learning has been the development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In 2008,  the University of Manitoba in Canada offered the first MOOC with just over 2,000 enrolments, which linked webinar presentations and/or blog posts by experts to participants’ blogs and tweets. The courses were open to anyone and had no formal assessment. In 2012, two Stanford University professors launched a lecture-capture based MOOC on artificial intelligence, which attracted more than 100,000 students, and since then MOOCs have expanded rapidly around the world.

Although the format of MOOCs can vary, in general they will have the following characteristics:

  • open to anyone to enroll and simple enrollment (just an e-mail address)
  • very large numbers (from 1,000 to 100,000)
  • free access to video-recorded lectures, often from the most elite universities in the USA (Harvard, MIT, Stanford in particular).
  • computer-based assessment, usually using multiple-choice questions and immediate feedback, combined sometimes with peer assessment
  • a wide range of commitment from learners: up to 50 per cent never do more than register, 25 per cent never take more than the first assignment, less than 10 per cent complete the final assessment.

However, MOOCs are merely the latest example of the rapid evolution of technology, the over-enthusiasm of early adopters, and the need for careful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of new technologies for teaching. At the current time of writing, the future of MOOCs are difficult to forecast. They typically have a high uptake but a large drop off and a low completion rate. They will evolve over time, and will probably find some kind of niche in the higher education market.

These rapid developments in educational technologies mean that educators need to have a strong framework in place for assessing the value of different technologies, new or existing, and for deciding how or when these technologies make sense for them and their students to use in classroom teaching. Blended and online learning, social media and open learning are all developments that are critical for effective teaching in a digital age.

Navigating new developments in technology and online learning

Educators in both universities and FE colleges now face the following challenges:

  • to teach in ways that help develop the knowledge and skills needed in today’s society;
  • to handle increasing class sizes;
  • to develop teaching methods that are appropriate for an increasingly diverse student body;
  • to deal with a variety of different modes of delivery.

However, in general, teachers and instructors in post-secondary education will have received little or no training in teaching, pedagogy or the research on learning since leaving teacher-training. Many school teachers lack the training required to deal with rapidly changing technologies. In the same ways we wouldn’t expect surgeons to operate without any training in surgery, yet that is exactly what we are expecting of our teachers and instructors. A systematic training schedule is required for teachers to have the skills required to deal with new technologies. This is set against a backdrop in Northern Ireland, where our primary school system is now ranked among the best in the world in Literacy and Numeracy. The question now becomes: ‘if this is what our teachers can achieve without support, how much can they achieve with it?’


Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

I'm a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. My research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, how we interact with technology, blended learning and professional development. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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