August 22, 2014

There was a time when the only way to keep perishable foods from spoiling was to store them with a block of ice in an icebox. Companies delivered ice to homes for this purpose. Many went bust after electric refrigerators replaced ice boxes and companies that made and sold this new technology replaced those that delivered ice.

The firms that lost out saw themselves as being in the ice delivery business instead of the cooling business. One ice delivery company did manage to survive thanks to an innovative employee who began selling perishable produce along with ice in stores. Today, that company is Seven-Eleven [1].



Figure 1. The very first web page.

Twenty-three years ago this month Tim Berners Lee created the first web page (figure 1). Since then the web and associated technologies (smartphones, tablets, wireless connections) have transformed society in a multitude of ways.

Just as with ice delivery, some companies that have not adapted to the new technology have gone bust, such as Borders [2], while others have had to reorganize into different businesses, some more than once (e.g. Microsoft [3,4]).

An interesting question is how higher education has adapted to this change and whether some current providers may be in danger of going the same way as the ice delivery companies and Borders. A number of recent articles speculate about this possibility (e.g. [5, 6, 7]).

So what has really changed and why does this necessitate a new direction in education? The first change is a rapid acceleration in the development of human knowledge.

Previously, the world learned about discoveries mainly when they were published in a book or journal or revealed at a conference (a slow and selective process). This assumed the learner had access to a good library or the means to travel to a conference. Knowledge creators could collaborate efficiently only with others in the same geographic location. Today collaboration and sharing among knowledge creators happens more rapidly and on a global scale through the Internet.

The second change is that it is no longer necessary to have all the knowledge you need for a task in your head. Increasingly, fast access to all available knowledge is possible with a mobile Internet-connected device. The growing world of apps provides targeted reminders, checklists, and just-in-time learning to guide practice. However, the skills to process that knowledge effectively and make use of associated technologies are new.

Traditional educational curriculum design encompasses the concept of a core body of knowledge associated with each discipline, that is, certain things that graduates should know before they enter the workforce. In the past, an expert without all the required core knowledge stored in their head might not be able to function effectively.

Filling in knowledge gaps meant visiting the library or taking refresher courses — time-consuming tasks. The notion of a relatively static core of knowledge is fading. Some areas of knowledge are developing so rapidly that what is taught at the beginning of a program of education may be out of date by the time a student graduates.

Education has always been about balancing knowledge and skills. Skills can be discipline related (e.g. medical diagnosis), transferable across disciplines (e.g. communication skills) or applicable to life in general (often reinforced through extracurricular activities).

In this Internet age there is a need to rebalance the classroom experience away from the delivery of knowledge and more toward the development of skills, chief among them information literacy, that is, how to manage (e.g. search, assess and apply) the vast amount of online information and knowledge.

In a world where most knowledge is readily available in a hand-held device, delivering knowledge to students through live lectures and testing how much they have retained in their heads through closed-book exams may be the equivalent of delivering ice in the new age of refrigeration.

As an institution, ACPHS has not been blind to the changes brought about by the Internet. For more information on this issue and how ACPHS is addressing it, please visit the following sites:

  • ACPHS Instructional Design Services: This unit is working with faculty on re-engineering their courses for the Internet age. There are links to video case studies of some of the completed projects.
  • The Innovative Learning Blog: This blog contains a number of posts relating to learning in the age of the Internet. The August post includes a link to a video of the keynote address at the Blackboard world conference. In this keynote, Joi Ito, head of the MIT Media Lab, offers several examples of the before and after Internet worlds and discusses the implications for education.

Ian Douglas, Ph.D. is the Vice Provost for Innovative Learning and Academic Support Services at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He is also the author of “The Innovative Learning Blog.”


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