Education and the Digital Student

Everyone is now a student and very demanding

by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ February 12, 2021

This is a story of a failure to evolve. That failure has produced an educational disaster at all levels in America. Isolating and minimizing change produced an environment of failure that has devastated American, and world, education in the face of the COVID pandemic.

Will the consequences of that failure also sabotage the future of education in America? The door to that future is fully digital and online with an open modality. A traditional, closed classroom is no longer the default learning environment. Any effort to reimpose that dysfunctional standard will damage society, culture, and the economy.

A major factor in this change is the delayed recognition that education is information delivery with collaboration. Information delivery has been transformed over the last thirty years from limited sources and passive receipt to ubiquitous sources and interactive exploration. The learning process has become actively directed by the student with the teacher replaced by a director and mentor.

With rapidly expanding virtualization technology, education has left the academic lecture halls of the Renaissance and returned, in a digital form, to the natural master and apprenticeship model of earlier human societies. The learning experience is immersive and collaborative but with no geographic boundaries.

Elements of this have moved steadily into education over the last fifty years but still constrained by the campus limits and classroom walls. The entire structure of professional education is so completely integrated into those boundaries and their ownership that little space was left for anything but token innovation. The extent of needed change only became visible to most with the COVID pandemic disaster that shut down schools, campuses, and classrooms as dangerous.

A year of this has shown both the educational failures and rewards of the new digitally collaborative media. That year has fully illuminated the massive asset distortions imposed on the American people and inflicted on America’s students. What this means for the future of education is obvious but the willingness to act on what has been learned is not clear.

The difficulty, as with all major paradigmatic shifts, is the width and depth of needed change across cultures, economies, and governmental entities. The reality is that the fundamental change is a major cultural paradigmatic shift equally affecting almost all social structures that can be isolated to any one institutional structure.

The two major components of modern American, and planetary culture, are business and government. Both are being completely transformed although governmental units, including educational institutions, are rigid and, often, very slow to change. Yet these are experiencing the same forced move into fully digital and online services. Where that has failed, governmental units are failing.

Commercial entities have been forced by their dependency on capitalist market structures to adapt much more quickly over the last thirty years or lose their customer base and be consumed by competitors. The shift from manufacturing and finance to information technology and finance as the core skills and values produced, not change but consumption of older enterprises by the new information technology corporations.

From the outside, this was seen as a radical change and initially progressive and optimistic, it has proven to be only new owners of the same, distorted economic system. This has brought a new set of social and political disasters tied to the failure to redesign government for the new era producing brutal political lessons in what that means.

At the operating level, the effects of this shift are close to identical across business, government, and education. The effects are:

  • Geographic location has lost importance and becomes a supplementary factor for specific services and activities.
  • Offices have also lost importance and become a more difficult cost to justify requiring structural reorganization.
  • Informational roles, such as advisors and teachers, are no longer the preferred sources of information. Younger generations and adapted older generations often prefer automated systems for information search and simple processes. Human contact is an escalation, not a starting point.
  • Skill training is, more than ever, the dominant form of adult education. This is following the same path as information search and automated activities. While the range of amateur production of ‘how-to’ videos ranges from dangerously wrong to brilliant there is no certification leaving an obvious opportunity for community colleges and others. But the rigid 20th-century credit structure is of little value for the great bulk of desired adult education.
  • All information must be always available. Escalated human contact for specialized assistance may be limited but all information is expected to be instantly available on demand. The cost of waiting for human delivery of that information is increasingly unacceptable.
  • People now have value as mentors and personalized assistants but not gatekeepers to information and training.
  • The remaining value to direct, in-person interaction beyond social and entertainment activities will be steadily reduced by simplified VR/AR systems. This has been tremendously accelerated by the pandemic and all of the factors listed above.

All of these shifts move control from institutions and their human hierarchies to the end-user (an IT term) with their desires, needs, and skill levels. All information service organizations are on the same level for the individual user and they expect the same options designed for their convenience.

Educational institutions that fail to restructure based on this set of realities will become last resorts for people unless they have significant added value. Geographic proximity is a declining added value with a shrinking market although personal contact and interaction will always have a value that value is not fixed.

Educator, CIO, retired entrepreneur, grandfather with occasional fits of humor in the midst of disaster. . .

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