The early 21st century is proving to an era of unprecedentedly fast and relentlessly accelerating change. Initially this change is technological, but ultimately it will also be societal. This article discusses the relationship between this era of change and the quantity and quality of learning it will demand. It also considers the mechanisms by which that new model learning might be delivered.
In the 20th century those entering the workplace might expect to keep the same job throughout their working lives. In the 21st century new entrants might expect to change job, and even occupation, several times before retirement. The 21st century citizen will need learning for each transition.
What is Learning?
Learning is the acquisition of new knowledge and/or skills. It also encompasses the updating or improvement of existing knowledge/skills.
Useful learning is learning that results in knowledge or skills that can be usefully applied (transferred) beyond the learning environment.
Increasing numbers of young people are taking advantage of a university or college education, and indeed in a February 2009 address to Joint Session of Congress President Obama set the goal that: “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world”. Increased take-up of higher education in Britain has seen many students from poorer backgrounds graduating with huge debts with many struggling to find suitable work. A 2009 survey from push.co.uk suggests new students can expect to graduate with over £23,000 debt. A July 2010 Analysis by the Higher Education Policy Institute reveals sharply worsening graduate unemployment.
Advocates of traditional higher education miss the point that much, if not most, of what is learned will quickly become redundant in the climate of increasingly rapid change.
Perhaps some 20% of the population would most benefit from full-time rigorous academic study in early adulthood. For the great majority, the required learning experience will not take the form of 3- or 4-year full-time rigorous academic study ahead of their working lives. Rather it will be offered flexibly through short, part-time and distance learning opportunities, mostly technologically mediated – both academic and vocational – enabling people to learn while they earn (or combine theory with valuable practical experience). And it should be offered throughout life in response to the increasingly rapidly changing demands of the
Full time degree students spend 3-4 years learning theory before they enter the workplace. But how much valuable is learning gained in parallel with real world experience?
The Old v The New
New Model Learning
|Learning takes place in the early part of life, from infancy through early adulthood.||Learning takes place throughout life to keep pace with rapid change.|
|Learning takes place at particular times and places, as specified by the educatiing body.||Learning takes place at the time and place convenient to the learner.|
|Learning occurs in the presence of a human teacher.||Learner interacts more directly with learning content (as opposed to human teacher).|
|Primary communication is from teacher to learner.||Learner communicates with teacher(s) and peers.|
|Everyone following a particular course learns from the same syllabus.||Learning is individualized. Every learner follows a unique “course”.|
|Learners can control what is learned and how learning is delivered.|
|Everyone following a particular course is presented with the same learning experience.||Learners can learn in different ways depending on their particular learning style and preferences.|
|Learning is a full time activity.||Learning is flexible, it can be part-time, full-time, face-to-face, distance or blended.|
|Learning occurs in parallel with life (work, family etc).|
|Part-time, distance learning is the dominant mode.|
|Learning is a passive experience of memorization followed by regurgitation. Learning is quickly forgotten after exams, if not applied in daily life.||Learning is an active experience. Learning becomes part of the learner (constructivism).|
|Theory is learned before being applied in practice.||Theory is learned in parallel with practical application.|
Approaches to Learning
Surface or shallow learning is learning in which the learner tries to do just enough to avoid failure. It involves committing facts to memory without any attempt to understand their meaning or add them to the learner’s internal knowledge model. Shallow learning is often used by immature learners, or learners for whom the learning itself is not the primary goal, eg working people who need to pass an exam in a subject of little interest in order to secure a pay rise.
Deep learning is learning in which the learner seeks to understand the meaning of the learning and to make it part of his/her internal knowledge model. Deep learning tends to occur among more mature learners and where the learner has a genuine interest in the subject of study.
Strategic learning is a sophisticated approach adopted by learners who focus their efforts on the efficient achievement of specific goals. Strategic learners may use a combination of shallow and deep learning and often their efforts will be focussed on satisfying assessment requirements. To ensure strategic learners meet learning outcomes assessment should be match desired outcomes.
Constructivism is the educational approach that views learning as the process of learners developing and refining their personal internal models of knowledge. It contrasts with the traditional, behaviorist, approach in which learners learn to produce the appropriate response to given stimuli. Constructivism has gained rapid favor among educationalists and may be more appropriate for the 21st century in which trained mechanical responses may be inadequate to cope with the climate of perpetual novelty.
Constructivism should produce learning of a higher quality because it builds mental models that can be generalised to novel situations rather than rote memorization. However, it is an active rather than a passive process and requires greater effort on the part of the learner. For this reason some learners may prefer the traditional “spoon feeding” approach. This preference for the traditional is likely to be more pronounced in learners already accustomed to a more passive style of learning.
In general people change slower than technology. It will take time for the acceptance of constructivist or technology-mediated learning as being of equivalent value to the traditional, classroom based, variety. But the ultimate acceptance of new model learning by all stakeholders (learners, teachers, institutions, government, employers…) is inevitable, as is its eventual ubiquity.