Education has a historical anomaly that has clung to the system a long time after it has been necessary. This is the case, especially in the last 20 years. Academics simply have no precedents to look to in order to figure out what to do. Digitization has truly changed the world. However, higher education has clung to a previous educational model that has found itself outdated and there are no signs that this is going to change anytime soon.
When formal education began after the medieval period, students gathered together to a place where knowledge was held and the resident scholars transmitted information to the students. Students took notes and memorized the material so they could draw on it in another place and at another time when the informational resources were not available. There was no other way, given the available technologies of the day.
This model of education was built on the underlying philosophy that knowledge and the knowledgeable were scarce – because they were. Students had to go to the place of learning and listen to the scholars because there was no other way to get the information.
This basic information scarcity model of education has survived changes and inventions that have changed the world. The printing press, cheap paper, radio and television, photocopying, computers, the internet, Wi-Fi, mobile devices, all of these have made information more and more accessible, and yet the underlying model of students going to a place where information is held and listening to a scholar transmit that information to them hasn’t changed at all. The model is exactly the same as it has been for centuries. Information is scarce so you have to go, either in person or virtually, to the guardians of knowledge to find out what you need.
In addition to the information scarcity model that education is based on, there is also the content coverage that hasn’t changed. Centuries ago, it was possible to read a subject (that is what they called going to university years ago) and learn pretty well all there was to know about an area of study in a few years. There was a place to go and find out all there was about something. The explosion in the amount of available information about every field of knowledge has increased in an exponential manner. Even though there is a million, million times as much information about something now than in the past, the model of going to a place to find out all there is to know about a field is still being practiced.
According to Buckminster Fuller:
Knowledge Doubling Curve
1900 100 years
1940 25 years
2014 13 months
2020 12 hours
My brain isn’t really big enough to really grasp what this really means. The amount of information available in the world has exploded beyond any way I can think of to really grasp it. This is great until you realize that in a university, the purpose for going to university hasn’t changed, or at least no one has told the professors that his or her role hasn’t changed. As a result, professors are still trying to cover an entire field over a four-year degree. What this means is that all there is time for is content – no time to think.
According to the curve, the information from a five-minute segment of a lecture delivered in a 1965 lecture on some topic became a full 90-minute lecture by 1979. By 1990, the information from the 5-minute 1965 segment had expanded to fill a 15-week, 120 minutes a week, university class. Today, the information from the 5-minute 1965 lecture segment has become a 5-year non-stop lecture. And, in many ways, university professors are still trying to make sure that they cover an entire field, meaning that in some programs, there is new content to be learned on the last day of a four-year degree. In fact, I have seen students in the final days of an advanced Masters degree still having PowerPoint slides read to them so they could have adequate coverage of a field so that they can… can do something… Oh yeah, so that they can pass the test that requires them to memorize all the stuff that they have been taught.
You might think that I am kidding about having to try to memorize everything. I had a final year (undergraduate) student from a chemistry class taking my Science of Learning class, and during one of the discussions, she told us something that dumbfounded me. I sat with my mouth agape after she told us that one of the questions she had answered on the exam she had taken that week was to describe the properties of the 99th element in the periodic table of elements. Six weeks before she was graduating with a Chemistry degree, she was being tested on her memorization of the periodic table.
Then there is the scarcity of scholars. This is simply not the case any longer. There are now millions of PhDs around the globe with the majority not involved in academic life. In the US, it has been noted at of the 317,000 waiters and waitresses in the US with college degrees more than 8,000 have doctoral degrees. That is a lot of untapped scholarship that is available to help make obscure information into usable knowledge.
What we seem to have been unable to adapt to is the explosive growth of knowledge, the explosive growth of scholars, and – most importantly – the ubiquity of that information. All of the information in the world is now available anywhere that the internet services with millions of highly qualified scholars available to support learning. We are living in a world of true information abundance.
The transition from a world of information scarcity to information abundance has been millennia in the making. From the great library at Alexandria to the foundation of the first universities in the West, information has been gathered and made available to those thirsty for knowledge. Imagine the amazement that Socrates would experience if he were to step into our world today and see what we have available to learn. Then imagine his shock and horror when he realized what we have done with our knowledge. With both the information and support to make it knowledge in virtually unlimited supply, we still bring people together and charge exorbitant amounts of money to give them the opportunity to memorize and be tested over and over again so that they can receive a paper that says that this is what they have done. No thinking, just memorization. I believe that he would attempt to return to his own time and place as quickly as he could.
All the potential in the world. The fulfillment of the dreams of millions of scholars across all the ages of the world to have so much information and knowledge available, and we still treat it as though it is a scarce commodity that must be closely guarded and locked away behind paywalls and library walls.
I don’t think this was the vision that Guttenburg had when he came up with the idea to make movable type. However, it does match the vision of the all-powerful Church, the scholarly elite, and the powerful political class of the time who worked in concert to suppress, outlaw, and destroy the new invention that would make information more widely available.
I guess we just have to decide where we stand. Are we happy to be a part of the powerful establishment that keeps information scarce or do we work to change the world to a truly information abundant world?