Double Helix of Learning and Work

2.5. The New Environment of Learning and Work

The United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000 may have heralded the advent of a new era. The conventional rhetoric that is specific to such solemn assemblies was widely replaced by sound reflection and down-to-earth realism. The debates illustrated the new way in which the international community chose to rank its major issues according to their importance and the amount of anxiety they might cause. The report of the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi A. Annan, began with three issues of special significance: (i) opportunities for the young; (ii) employment; and (iii) education.

The United Nations acknowledged that globalization “offers great opportunities, but at present its benefits are very unevenly distributed while its costs are borne by all” and that “the central challenge we face today is to ensure that globalization becomes a positive force for all the world’s people”. Good governance was presented as the only rational way to prevent and to manage the negative effects of globalization. And the very substance of good governance lies in the ability of societies, not just governments, to adapt flexibly to the necessary changes that technological advances have made inevitable. Rather than “adapta­ble”, the word, “prepared”, better describes that particular ability to cope with change in the new circumstances.

Education and employment are probably the areas that are the most vulnerable to increas­ing inequality. According to foresight studies, those areas are also the most exposed to negative developments, were we to pursue the track we have trodden so far. The United Nations report places education and work together. The chapter on employment states that “Education is the first step. Creating employment opportunities is the next”. Still, the barriers between education and work are not mentioned. The report does not suggest that the two areas should be addressed simultaneously with a view to providing joint solutions.

The message we are trying to convey in this study is that the next step is to consider education and work together. The Learning and Work approach aims at significant changes in the organization of education and work. In addition to the practical solutions that the new system offers to the two fields, it also enhances the preparedness of society to cope with the challenges of globalization. It is meant to bring an element of flexibility into the entire institutional structure of society, from legislation to finance.

The following combination of features characterizes the system outline:

  • It brings knowledge acquisition and its use closer together;
  • It provides a unitary vision of life by combining lifelong education and lifelong work;
  • It suggests an individual-centered single lifetime Learning and Work strategy, with plenty of opportunities to choose new paths according to one’s own evolution and aspirations;
  • It shifts the main activity of the university as a manager of discipline-teaching to that of a custodian of module-based tutoring and lifelong learning;
  • It offers everybody unlimited chances to enter the system, thus reducing the waste of human resources in the fields of both education and work;
  • It enhances the incentives to learning and work, and it proposes a coherent system of recognition based on merits;
  • It uses as inputs the most relevant strands of knowledge and continuously refreshes the content of learning, adding the skills and the worldview demanded by modern work;
  • It gives to the two main spheres in which human life is spent, learning and work, the possibility to be not only complementary and in harmony with each other but also to stabilize and bring into balance the flow of people moving from one field into another.

All these features are acquired owing to the modular system, whereby units of learning or work have the capacity to combine in a meaningful way. They have connectors for branching inside the learning and working systems, and also between the two systems.

In this process, new professions are likely to be born. The designer of a module is different from its author (a professor, a scientist, or an expert). The planner of modules is different from the designer. Producing modules will become a booming industry, comparable in magnitude with the production of music CDs. The co-operative aptitudes and habits of various institutions and branches and the practice of teamwork and taskforces and of ad hoc and temporary synergies will undoubtedly increase.

We have to note that had the corporations had tighter links with higher education, their requirements would have been known and could have generated adequate responses in a system with sufficient managerial flexibility to avoid the rigidity of disciplinary blocks. The corporate universities are now better equipped and financed, freer of constraints, than their counterparts in the regular system, and they can undoubtedly be more innovative and more open to change. Still, are they not, at the same time, liable to enhance inequality of chances? The parent corporations will mostly hire graduates of their own universities, while other graduates will see their chances of employment diminish.

Another attempt to bridge the gap between the enterprise and the educational system was the initiative to create a “university for industry” (UfI). Similar to the Open University, the university for industry accepts total flexibility. It aims to “tell you what learning is available and offer advice if you need it, and provide you with a course that meets your needs, whether full-time, part-time, or through study at home, at work, or at a local center”.

At this point, it is quite legitimate to ask ourselves: Should the polytechnic universities not be the industrial universities? Should they not make the changes that have already been assimilated by the industrial university?

In any event, the two initiatives – the corporate university and the university for industry – are clear symptoms of the perceived need to link the two domains of learning and work that are still separated and distant from each other.

For those who doubt the advantages of the Learning and Work project, it may not be such a bad idea to analyze the possible objections or even adverse attitudes to it.

First, scientists might say that, since it is the production of science and not its distribution that matters to them, the map of knowledge is not really necessary because it simply records what is already known. Science is interested in open issues that act as a magnet for the vocational profiles on the educational map. So far as research is concerned, the desired applications are also listed among the goals that would organize the knowledge units backwards. Theoretical or practical problem solving necessitates units or modules that exceed the scope of Learning and Work. The objection is valid and welcome. But it is still socially preferable that, instead of suggesting an alternative mapping, scientists should provide their advanced research modules to all those who are willing to join research activities. This can easily be combined with the present or future profiles of researchers. Scientists may wish to work on a parallel mapping of open issues. Such an attempt was already made by Ronald Duncan and Miranda Weston-Smith (1977) when they compiled and published their Encyclopaedia of Ignorance.

Another objection might come from the staff of the teachers of disciplines. Although their reticence may be caused by an immediate interest in keeping their jobs, they have to be listened to when they express concern about declining quality standards and loss of academic rigour or specific ethos resulting from the solidarity of the servants of a discipline. The answer lies in the established fact that the major divisions of knowledge (i.e., the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities; the medical and the biological sciences; formal sciences such as logic and mathematics; and arts, music, and sports) will continue to provide the guidelines for the formation of researchers and for the first approximation of the areas of vocational profiles. The mathematician does not disappear either as a researcher and a competent author of modules or as a tutor for a large class of modules when mathematics is predominant.

The third category of persons who might have reservations about the modular system is represented by those who warn about the overwhelming responsibilities we may prematurely place on the shoulders of young people. A young person is likely to be faced with the lack of preparation of society itself to function in an environment of greater uncertainty and risk. Much of that situation can be blamed on the bankrupt determinism of the past. The market economy requires alert and mobile people, capable of coping with increasing competition. The image of a young person sitting comfortably under the roof of a discipline as his or her only way in life, complacent and indifferent to the opportunities of choice or change, is being replaced by the picture of a new young person who moves along the channels linking the modules, heading towards a promising star and suddenly changing course as he or she sees another, even more attractive, target. This effort will offer a much higher probability of living a rewarding life compared to the prospects offered by the rigid systems, which are already cracking under the strain of change.

To all of the above, one can add the inertia of those systems in which stability is translated by immobility: bureaucracies, institutions, legislation, and conventional and conveniently smug thinking. Such bastions of procrastination are unlikely to survive the sweeping changes that are being brought about by the new century. Human society discovered the merits of flexibility decades ago. Long before flexible approaches were included in Learning and Work, enterprises were using them in industrial production.

Meanwhile, most industries have adopted the modular method using subassemblies that enter different combinations to produce a broad range of finite products, which can be rapidly harmonized, with the demands of customers. Tailor-made or customized products are now being turned out at mass industrial speed.

The systems of education and work are not those systems most naturally inclined to change. Provided they become more flexible and modular early on in this century, they still have a chance not to miss out on the future.

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