Reinventing te wheel, learning in the 21st century

In today’s globalized society and business environment, companies as well as education institutes face a challenge in keeping up-to-date with industry developments, driven by fast technological development and erratic market dynamics. Will our education system be sufficiently equipped to deliver professionals with the right knowledge and skill sets for the 21st century?

New (digital) technologies, dynamics in demography and markets bring professionals in a continuous state of flux. The below table  provides an overview of relevant systems transitions in global production systems, logistics and the human factor therein. Roughly speaking these systems transitions take place when breakthrough inventions in both energy, transportation and technology happen simultaneously.

These systems changes have an enormous impact on the global production system:  from single to series production, from mechanical to mass production and from mass customization to mass individualization. With 3D printing and solar energy, we may now be on the verge of distributed manufacturing. This will open up opportunities for millions and millions of consumers in developing countries on ‘the bottom of the pyramid’ when they are self-sustaining in generating solar energy, print their own consumer products and are connected with the rest of the world just like anyone else. Such developments will influence what we transport and where we are transporting our goods to.

Machines for the masses

These changes will also have an impact on the knowledge and skills we require from the future professional. Whereas the master used to teach his apprentices his craftman’s techniques over years and years of specialization, mass production in the 20th century made the human factor an insignificant element in a big machine which was strikingly put on film in Charley Chaplin’s Modern Times in 1936.

With mass production came mass education. Learning was taken away from the workshop and into school factories. Since then, schools have been striving for the same economies of scale as in a manufacturing. Schools became highly efficient in terms of output, i.e. more students, however became ineffective in terms of outcome, a growing misfit with the profession.

Education follows market

One of the challenges for education institutes in the school system as we know it now is that education follows market, and often at a much slower pace. Student outcomes are set well in advance and are therefore less flexible than changes in the professional field often require. Next to that, on-the-job competencies change and are out of date quickly. At the same time, many people consider education a necessary phase in life to kick start a career, or worse: they undergo school because their parents say so. Once departed from school – with or without diploma – education is something from the past. In modern times, professionals will have to engage in life long learning. They need to be adaptable, be open to adopt new technologies and ways of working – and thereby stay employable over the span of their careers. The question is whether this professional really needs to go back to school?

From formal learning interventions to informal cycles

The education institute of today centers around creating learning interventions – also for professionals – in a formalised setting: classrooms, rosters, schedules, cohorts, all planned in detail. Indeed, it is almost like master scheduling a production line. Again, this is the heritage of the age of economies of scale, which made sense as knowledge was captured with fixed resources in a contained setting. Nowadays,  demand and supply of knowledge is easily done over the internet via online platforms like Coursera, EdX, YouTube or iTunesU. Moreover, the real learning for professionals takes place on the workfloor itself, at least when organizations have mechanisms in place for reflection and recapitulation of the ‘what went wells’ and ‘what went not so well’, and know how to avoid negative effects of dominant logic and group think behavior. Formal learning interventions may still be necessary, but only fill halve the glass. Mobile apps are increasingly assisting managers to enhance their leadership skills or to help refresh and remember, e.g. after a safety or sales training. The bottom line is that learning is brought back to the place where it works best: in practice.

So we don’t need schools anymore?

Sure we do. Schools are still the best place to bring general knowledge to young people. When students move on, society expects them to be fit for the job. Key point is to make these schools, especially in the field of vocational colleges, specific enough. That requires a learning environment which gradually builds in more reality: from classroom examples to workshops, from simulators and serious games to internships, and from a proof of competence to a profession.  Secondly, it needs also to be realistic enough. The figure below shows the interaction between education and business. In order to deal with industry challenges and innovation trends, an interactive engagement – as often as possible – between learner and teacher on the one hand with the industry field on the other hand, aims to reduce the gap between the knowledge and skills acquired (competency) and the professional proficiency required.

The interaction between business and education is facilitated through so-called communities of practice. Good examples can be found in The Netherlands, where across the country has multiple Centres of Expertise (higher education) and Centres of Excellence (vocational education) across the country. A community of practice is a group of people with a shared interest, bring knowledge and skills together with the purpose of developing new concepts, products or applications. As such, it evolves as a network of relationships, interactions, connections through which participants pursue their goals. In reality, companies are setting up small-scale workshops where both professionals and students can practice, experiment, conduct tests and measurements or run pilots. A good example is the Makerspace community that has landed in many places around  the world, including Rotterdam. Other examples are the numerous contests by companies like the Shell Ecomarathon, Solar Challenge, the MarineMasterMind and World Port Hackathon. For these contests, these companies call upon innovators, thereby blurring the boundaries between student and professional.

The challenge for schools is to define, implement and embed a practice in which students, lecturers and professionals are engaged in so-called innovation circles, in which they participate on fixed weekdays in research-like business driven projects, such as in experiments, tests and prototyping using the makerspaces, field labs, simulators or workshops.  Thereby, students are not just consumers of knowledge but become creators themselves, while at the same time building a professional network on the go.

The 21st century is already here. It’s time to embrace experiential learning once again.

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