The Information Age (IA), like the Agricultural Age and Industrial Age before it, is more than an economic system. It is a total revision of the way our society functions – how we act, interact, and communicate. It is a new system of social, cultural, and economic power. It is also a complete reinvention of how we think, what it means to know something, the methods we use to teach, and how we learn.
These final two areas: the methods we use to teach and how we learn, are of concern to a discussion of whether the IA has fully reached higher education. An examination of what teaching and learning should look like in an IA classroom will make it clear how far we have to go before our educational system catches up with the world we live in.
What is Information Age Education?
The necessity of being educated in the IA encompasses more than just learning facts and how to operate a computer. It is an entire system of knowing and thinking that pervades every aspect of our lives. Some of the areas which are important to being educated in the 21st Century are:
- Social/Cultural – One of the distinguishing things about education in the IA is that it is operates largely via social media and digital social networks. Education must take advantage of these networks to transmit instruction and as a means of communicating within the system to enhance learning.
- Systemic – IA technology is integral to almost all other human systems through its ability to facilitate communication and interaction. Our social, political, economic, education, and other societal systems rely on or are strongly influenced by technology. An understanding of the interrelated systems and how they affect one another is an important part of a contemporary education.
- Participatory/Learner Centered – Because of the incredible diversity of resources available, learning with and about computers and the Internet necessitates user input and interactivity in order to work. Education in the IA requires that the learner be an active participant in their own knowledge formation.
- Power Conscious – Technology and information are both the source of power and the vehicle by which it is created and transmitted. Understanding the relationships of power inherent in IA communication and technology is central to learning in the 21st Century.
- Critical – The sheer volume of information available to the IA student and the complex systemic relationships that technology produces require that learners be critically aware of systems, how systems may be manipulated, and their own roles within those systems.
- Economy Driven – Information and the technologies that facilitate its growth are not only a product for the economy, but also provide new markets and the channels of distribution for the economy. One cannot be educated in the IA without an understanding of the complex relationship between information, media, power, and the economy.
- Evolutionary – Because of the rapid pace of technological innovation, education in the IA is in a constant state of change. Being literate in the 21st Century entails cultivating an ability to adapt to changes in the technology around us.
(Based on Marquis, 2011)
The Current State of College Curriculums
It is obvious from looking at the list above that few–if any–college curriculums accomplish all or even most of these necessary components to being educated in the IA. Even in the liberal arts, colleges are still so focused on their disciplinary silos that truly revamping the curriculum to incorporate what it means to be educated in the IA is a remote possibility at best. The areas listed above break down into content-area concerns and technical or logistical strategies. Currently, a particular class may incorporate some of the technical areas–such as the use of social media–while still failing to adapt the course content to accommodate revisions necessary to consider the systemic forces affecting a given topic.
The adjustment of colleges and universities to reflect the demands of 21st Century society will eventually come, as all changes have come to higher education, slowly and in tiny increments. New programs will be added as demand increases and economic constraints allow. Advanced technologies will eventually permeate all classes as students mandate that their favorite social media app become part of the curriculum and more of Marc Prensky's "digital natives" become members of the professorate. But will these baby steps happen rapidly enough to save a system that is under attack and facing fierce competition from non-traditional initiatives such as digital badges, informal education, and free online alternatives?
Is Online Education the Answer?
One potential way for the higher education establishment to deal with the need for rapid change is through online education. As the new kid on the block, online education has little historic inertia to overcome in regards to adapting education to fit the necessities of the IA.
From my own conversations with administrators and faculty at the universities in the city I live in, as well as online research, it is obvious that most traditional universities are at least dabbling in online education. Many institutions are diving in straight away. An online course developer at one nearby university told me that his institution can't keep up with the demand for new online classes. The demand is coming from students as well as from the university administration.
Because of the inherent technical component of online learning there is a built-in head start in terms of incorporating the elements necessary for a successful IA education. The danger is that existing classes and curriculums will simply be ported to online formats rather than reinvented to fit the medium.
Now is the time for conscious planning and careful design of courses to incorporate the elements that will help guide students toward optimizing their education for the connected, technology-rich world they live in.