Erik P.M. Vermeulen

@erikpmvermeulen

Education in a Digital Age

August 11th 2017

How to Prepare the Next Generation for the Uncertain Things to Come

Picture of the anime “Neon Genesis Evangelion” at Hakata Station in Fukuoka in Japan (May 2017)

As a university professor and director of an international program, the summer has always been the best time to reflect on the content of the program and my courses.

I regularly update my teaching materials to keep them relevant for students. Teaching new issues also keeps me fresh and helps with my research and other writing.

As a teacher/educator, I have an obligation to ensure that students are given the latest insights and trends.

But, this year, something feels different.

I really believe that a more fundamental change is necessary. “Updates” are no longer enough.

Instead, what is needed is a whole new approach to education.

Why?

My sense of “dissatisfaction” with the current state of university education has everything to do with the exponential growth of technology. As I’ve written about before, we are experiencing a “digitization of reality”.

This is the result of the global proliferation of new technologies. We all now live in a “digital world” that is characterized by fast-paced, technology-driven social change.

The future will be full of tremendous opportunities, but it will also be a world of tremendous uncertainty.

Such uncertainty creates a huge challenge for educators. With the current pace of innovation and shorter innovation cycles, it seems obvious that new technologies are going to continue to transform every aspect of how we live and work.

Constant technological disruption is the new normal. “Old world” concepts, models, paradigms and ideas will no longer be relevant.

So, what should we be teaching our students today?

What?

Teaching has always tended to be “backward-looking”. Transmitting the settled knowledge of the past has been the starting point for our whole approach to education.

For instance, in the field of law, students have traditionally analyzed existing laws, regulations and cases. The idea has been that if you understand historical developments, you would be able to solve future problems by applying old doctrines and precedents to the new situation.

A similar logic can be seen in other fields. MBA programs, for example, employ the same approach in a business context.

The responsibility of the educator was to transmit this information / content. In a world of information asymmetries, the educator-student relationship was, by necessity, a hierarchical one. After all, the teacher had all the knowledge.

But, this model seems ill-suited in a world of constant change. If the future is radically different from the present, it doesn’t make much sense to focus on content that seems likely to be irrelevant.

Moreover, the ready availability of information means that that the informational advantage of the teacher is of much less significance.

The result?

Education needs to become much more “forward-looking” and skills-based.

How then do we prepare the next generation for dealing with unknown future problems?

This is the question that we need to be asking. “Updating” the content of our programs or courses is really no longer enough.

Technology

For a start, everyone is going to need a much better theoretical understanding of the technologies surrounding computers, communication networks, artificial intelligence and big data. For many of us, the underlying technologies that are driving social change remain a mystery and that is a problem.

Practical technical knowledge also needs to be integrated into many fields of education. Coding and data analytics seem a good starting point.

But, we also need to think about other skills and capacities that are important in a world of unprecedented change. The focus should be on building skills that will assist the next generation in making the right decisions under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

Here are some suggestions of the kind of issues that I believe are important:

#1 — Creative Thinking

The next generation has to be able to think fast and “out of the box”.

Dynamic analysis of complex situations and the ability to communicate solutions, in presentations or in video form, will be key.

#2 — Entrepreneurship

In the future, we will see more open and looser organizations and social platforms. It is therefore important that the next generation finds ways to become more productive and self-motivating, i.e., how to operate without a “boss”/supervisor telling them what to do.

As traditional concepts of a “career” become much less relevant, it will become increasingly important to build a personal brand by telling the right kind of story.

#3 — Teamwork

More open organizations mean having to work in teams of strangers, often from diverse national or disciplinary backgrounds.

The ability to work in a team, constantly adapting to new situations and working patterns, becomes crucial.

#4 — Ethics

Many of the problems of the future will be ethically complex. This seems particularly true in the context of robotics and artificial intelligence.

Yet, all new technologies raise difficult ethical issues. Building the capacity of students to think about ethics seems another way that teachers can add value.

#5 — Interdisciplinary learning

Finally, we need to be open to interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary study, however strange it might initially seem.

For example — and this is just a personal opinion — I think that a greater knowledge of biology can help prepare the younger generation for the challenges of the future.

Partly, this reflects my own preference for biology metaphors for understanding recent changes in the business world. I have written elsewhere on Tesla as an open and inclusive “ecosystem”. I believe that metaphors involving the “environment” and “evolution” are similarly helpful.

But, this also reflects my belief that the next big wave of innovation is likely to be in the field of biology, and that knowledge of the field will be at a premium.

Of course, I could be wrong about this. But the basic thought that exposure to multiple perspectives can only help in preparing the younger generation for an uncertain future, is surely correct.

How?

This brings us to the final questions:

How should we teach the next generation?
What teaching methods do we need to employ to be more effective as educators in the digital world?

Of course, this is not a new question. Educators have always reflected on how to improve their performance. There is a lot of discussion on this issue right now.

But too much of the current debate seems overly simplistic. In particular, the current focus on “distance learning” or “online teaching” seems particularly problematic.

The idea that putting everything online makes everything OK seems a little naïve. Of course, it might give certain groups access to information that they otherwise wouldn’t have and that is obviously a good thing. But, we also need to be aware of the risks of such an approach.

In particular, it preserves the traditional teacher-student hierarchy and focus on content.

Instead, we need to be creating flatter, more inclusive learning environments — “Labs” — in which students are challenged to be more creative and entrepreneurial.

Students must be forced to work in teams and think about possible scenarios with the associated challenges and solutions. In this way, the capacities relevant for a digital age can be cultivated.

Student Expectations

But, perhaps the strongest argument for changing our approach to education is the expectations and demands of young people today.

It seems obvious to me that the “next” generation expects something different from education. The traditional approach simply bores them. They just switch off. The temptation to play with their phone — or simply to skip class altogether — is just too strong.

“Why should I go to class if I can get the same (or even better) information online?”

After all, the university entrants of today were born into a digital world. They belong to a culture that has no memory of a pre-Internet age. They are totally immersed in a digital culture and all its relatively “effortless” possibilities.

The risk for universities is that if they don’t adapt to this new reality, they will go the way of the “dinosaurs”. Lumbering giants ill-suited to a different and fast-changing environment.

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