Overcoming the Educational Time Warp: Anticipating a Different Future

3. Closing the Educational Technology Gap
Is it reasonable to rely on the perspective of instructors raised in worlds so different than today to prepare and equip our youth for life a generation from now which we cannot even imagine? The increasing speed of discovery, invention and knowledge generation imposes an ever-greater burden on the educational system and those who pass through it. One result is that the gap between information generation and transmission through education is widening rapidly. The world’s educational system lags far behind in responding to the growing need for speed.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, rapid technological development has been one of the key drivers for accelerated social evolution. It has radically altered the way almost every human activity is carried out. Mass production has radically changed the nature of work and the workplace. The train, automobile and airplane have transformed beyond recognition the frequency and speed with which we move from place to place. The telephone, radio, television and internet have inconceivably altered the speed and frequency with which we communicate. Urbanization has drastically reconfigured where and how we live. Antibiotics and other medicines have doubled our life span and abolished many ailments. The only notable exceptions are religion and education which are conducted largely as they have been for centuries in the past. Organization stifles rapid evolution in both fields.

Although the number of people engaged in higher education has increased even faster than the growth of population, the technology of higher education remains essentially unaltered. A reluctance to adopt new technologies in higher education can be traced back to the very origins of the system. The first modern university was founded at Bologna in 1088 about 360 years before the invention of the printing press. At that time oral transmission of information and ideas from scholars to assembled groups of students at a central location was the only available method for mass education. Yet six centuries after the advent of the printing press and the wide availability of printed books, the earlier model remains dominant. Since then, systems of communication have advanced from handwritten books to instant printing and global text, audio and video broadcasting, but education continues to rely on oral delivery systems akin to those used in ancient India and ancient Greece.

Serious efforts to develop alternative models can be traced back a few centuries, but have only recently begun to attain the critical mass needed to meet the rapid growth in demand. The first distance education program was introduced at the University of London in 1836 and at the University of Chicago in 1892. The USA and Soviet Union introduced distance education by radio broadcasts in the 1920s. Iowa State University became the first to broadcast educational courses on TV in 1950. The UK Open University was founded in 1969. The first online program of higher education was introduced by the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute of California in 1981. After 2000, MIT and other mostly American universities began to experiment more seriously with online delivery. The creation of YouTube in 2005, followed by Khan Academy and iTunes University in 2006, opened up alternative delivery systems outside the traditional university environment. This eventually led to the founding of the first Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by Udacity, Coursera and EdX in 2012. Today more than 30% of American college students participate in distance learning programs. China is expected to have 100 million online learners next year.1,2, These developments herald the first truly widespread change in educational technology in ten centuries. Yet, inertia and resistance from within the present system remain enormous and still retard adoption of new models.

4. Rediscovering Pedagogy
The mode of delivery is only one of the ways in which the global system of higher education is out of sync with the needs of society in the 21st century. Pedagogy is another serious constraint. The prevailing conception of what should be taught and how it should be taught remains mired in the distant past. In an age when information about virtually everything is available at our fingertips, the educational system continues to emphasize transfer of information as its predominant objective. It is time to pause and ask ourselves whether an entirely different conception of education is required.

The world over memorization of facts remains the predominant and often the exclusive approach to education. The predominant measure of education remains the capacity to regurgitate facts. With rare exceptions, understanding and application of principles and independent thinking are at best given secondary importance. In many countries students learn how to read, but still do not learn how to comprehend what they read. They are taught how to read and understand individual sentences, not how to comprehend the meaning of a series of arguments. They learn to speak in grammatically correct sentences, rather than to think in coherent chains of thought. Excessive emphasis on memorization diverts mental energy from higher processes of understanding, analysis and thinking. It forges deeply engrained habits at an early age that persist throughout life. It reinforces the insatiable appetite for more news and information. It explains why the best informed, most highly educated populations in the world continue to exhibit a very poor capacity for comprehension and independent thinking, as reflected in public opinion polls and electoral behavior.

While leading American universities tend to give greater emphasis to understanding and analysis than universities in most other countries, subject proficiency remains the primary qualification for lecturers around the world. At the WAAS-WUC conference at UC Berkeley in October 2013, leading educators confirmed that the perpetual race to keep up with the increasing accumulation of information to be taught has overshadowed research on the actual process of learning itself. The role of the university instructor is still primarily to transfer information, not to awaken minds and stimulate creative thinking.§ The near universal effort to remember more and more has led us to neglect something more important than all the facts they commit to memory. In placing exclusive emphasis on what is to be taught, we neglect the process of learning itself. Higher education has forgotten the central importance of pedagogy. Thus, text based learning and oral language learning continue to predominate long after educators and psychologists have identified important individual differences in the way different people learn best and multiple intelligences which human beings utilize in order to learn in multiple different ways.

The recent revolution in learning technologies has revived efforts to understand the process of learning itself and to measure it more effectively. It has also facilitated the study of different individual learning patterns and their results. This research confirms what every teacher has always known—that we learn most when we teach others. The present system is designed to maximize the learning of the instructor, rather than that of the student. The mind develops when curiosity is aroused and imagination is awakened, not when it is passively absorbed processing bits and pieces of canned knowledge. The essential value of live contact with the instructor is to promote interaction that raises conscious awareness and stimulates independent thinking. Experimentation with hybrid learning models in which students study on their own and then come to class to interact with instructors and other students demonstrates rates of learning far exceeding those obtained by either conventional classroom or online methods by themselves. Moreover, the shift to online learning has greatly facilitated the adoption of multi-sensory forms of learning, incorporating text, images, sound and video that appeal to different aspects of human intelligence. A new pedagogy is needed that harnesses the new technologies to provide a more complete and effective learning experience.

Another longstanding pedagogical tenet is that students learn best when they study independently and compete with one another. Few question why this should in fact be the case. In the workplace almost all activity involves group collaboration, where the process of discovery and development is a collective process. A cooperative learning model was introduced at New Technology High School in Napa, California in 1996 at the suggestion of companies seeking to improve the learning skills and working capacities of their future recruits. The altered model was found so successful that it has resulted in the establishment of a national New Tech Network consisting of 160 schools in 26 states based on the cooperative learning model.

5. Restoring Life to Education
There is another fundamental aspect of pedagogy which receives too little attention today—the creation of context. As Whitehead put it, “There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations.”3 Life is a learning experience that is perceptible to all our physical senses, feelings and emotions. In addition, it is inherently contextual. Each experience occurs within a wider physical, social, cultural, intellectual and psychological context that provides essential insights into the nature of the knowledge that can be discerned from the experience. We understand very little about the unique discoveries of Copernicus and Darwin, unless we are cognizant of the constraining force of religious orthodoxy opposing the propagation of ideas that appeared to directly undermine the authority of established church doctrine. Great scientific discoveries of the 20th century met with similar resistance from the entrenched scientific community. The history of the American Civil War is hardly intelligible unless viewed in the context of the growing sentiment against slavery that began in Europe and spread around the world after 1700. Yet today the tendency toward decontextualization of information is greater than ever before. We have evolved a culture of facts devoid of knowledge. We pride ourselves on the capacity to absorb innumerable snippets of data daily on a wide range of subjects so that we can converse on all subjects without really understanding any of them. And this may be widely prevalent within academia, as well as in the outside world.

This tendency toward decontextualization is fueled and aggravated by the exponential growth of information, but it has deeper, more fundamental roots in the workings of the thinking mind. The nature of the mind is to try to know by dividing reality into parts and concentrate on studying each part as if it were a whole, then subdividing it into smaller parts and studying each of them as if it too constituted a whole in its own right. We study the trees and lose sight of the forest. We study circulatory or respiratory diseases and lose the holistic perception of human health, which characterized ancient systems of medicine such as Ayurveda and Siddha. We create specialists in finance who have been taught little about the impact of finance on production, employment and human welfare. We educate experts in marketing, engineering, and human resources without imparting the knowledge of how organizations grow, develop and evolve. We educate leaders of business and research without considering the impact of their activities on society and the environment. We produce experts in each of the parts who are increasingly blind to the whole of which these parts are inseparable, integral elements.

The quantum of information is growing so rapidly that keeping up with new knowledge in a single field has become a full-time job that leaves little time for either teaching other people or applying that knowledge in other occupations. The knee-jerk response to information overload has been a proliferation of new disciplines and more specialized fields of study, resulting in an increasing fragmentation and compartmentalization of knowledge. The ideal of higher education a century ago was to equip people with broad general knowledge coupled with specialized expertise. Today higher education turns out specialists in innumerable narrow technical disciplines of business, chemistry, economics, engineering, law, medicine, physics, psychology, etc., but almost no generalists with a broad perspective of the whole subject or the wider reality of life of which all disciplines are a part.

The world’s problems today arise from a divorce between ourselves and the reality we live in. Financial markets are divorced from the real economy, economy is divorced from ecology and business and science are divorced from social responsibility and accountability. This results in a tendency to affirm the exclusive truth or greater truth of one side or aspect of reality at the expense of the other: we mistake the elusive gains of financial speculation for real economic progress; higher GDP for greater human welfare; and huge arsenals of nuclear weapons for enhanced cooperative security. After centuries of progress in all fields of natural science, we are baffled and helpless before the destructive impact of human activity on our environment, a consequence intuitively self-evident to far less advanced civilizations who lived in touch with nature.

Is more and more specialized expertise really the type of knowledge we need in the 21st century? The evidence suggests it is not. Examination of humanity’s current problems makes evident that narrow specialization is a source of the problems rather than a solution to them. A narrow focusing on financial economics is a root cause of the divorce between finance and economy that dominates the global economy today. Real knowledge is knowledge of the whole. Exercise of fragmentary partial knowledge without a wider perspective undermines the integrity of living systems, just like unlimited production devours the earth and unidimensional treatment of specific diseases often cures one ailment while creating another one in its place.

6. Trans-disciplinarity
To compensate for this fragmentation of reality, mind seeks to aggregate and recombine what it divides to form larger wholes, like the dictionaries and encyclopedias that gather all available information on a subject and place it in a container alphabetically. Then we seek to reconstruct relationships between the parts that have become separate by creating interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary studies that never succeed in encompassing the vitality, complexity and organic integrality of the original holistic reality they examine.

Growing awareness of this reductionist tendency of the human mind led to the development of systems theory, complexity theory, ecology and holistic thinking as efforts to reconstruct the whole that has been infinitely subdivided. This is a welcome and important development. Systems theory is based on the mind’s capacity for organization. The principle of organization is one of the characteristic ways in which mind aggregates its perceptions of separate ideas, objects and activities. Organization is an example of a trans-disciplinary principle applicable to all academic fields and all human activities. A study of the fundamental characteristics of organization is relevant to all fields of knowledge and life. Organization is the means by which human beings give form and structure to our consciousness and aspirations. We organize our ideas into theories, beliefs into philosophies and religions, values into modes of conduct and cultures, emotional commitments into relationships, activities into fields of social existence, land and material objects into property, etc. Organization is creative. It generates power for accomplishment. It can also become obstructive, rigid, inflexible and stifling to creativity, freshness and life itself.

Organization is essentially a mechanical construction of reality designed to divide and aggregate parts, the way a business subdivides work into specialized functions and activities and then aggregates them through structures, systems, rules and procedures. In contrast, the natural and social worlds in which we function are dynamic living systems, with the characteristics of all living organisms. The organizations we create often are a combination of the two—their organic character makes them dynamic and creative, their mechanical character makes them conservative, inflexible and bureaucratic. The reality they seek to create, nurture, manage and preserve evolves continuously over time, but the organizations themselves tend to become fixed in time, rigid and inflexible. These characteristics are relevant to the development and understanding of languages, societies, religions, political establishments, businesses, economic systems, scientific research and educational institutions.

The principle of organization is only one example of a wide range of trans-disciplinary principles and processes that characterize life, society, growth, development and evolution. A shift of emphasis from retention of facts to understanding of the trans-disciplinary principles applicable to all fields of study and life is one of the ways to counter information overload by raising the field of study from concepts that divide and contrast to concepts that differentiate even as they unify.

1 E-Learning Market Trends & Forecast 2014-2016 (Athens: Docebo, 2014)
2 “Trends in Global Distance Learning,” Hanover Research December 2011
3 Alfred North Whitehead, Aims of Education (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967), 6-7.
† See
‡ See 2014 China Online Education Report (Brief Edition),
§ “The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning. The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively. At least, this is the function which it should perform for society. A university which fails in this respect has no reason for existence.” Whitehead, op. cit., p. 93.

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