Learning (or Not?) in the Digital Era

Millennials are the first generation to be educated at a time when knowledge is both plentiful and accessible.

Educators are struggling to make the shift  from a model that was intent on helping students acquire knowledge through a prescribed path (a path that had been tried and tested over centuries), to one where it’s not necessary to know the answers, only how to find them. Indeed, the key skills today are knowing how to discern credible sources from those that are less trustworthy.

The benefits of  information democratization are undeniable. One only has to look at the DIY’ing of “elite” professional services (legal, health care, finance, academic etc.), to understand that free flowing information is a terrific thing.

At The London School of  Business Finance, you can now get an MBA via Facebook. Over 30,000 students have already registered and 500,000 are expected to. Courses in accounting, corporate finance, ethics, marketing, and strategic planning are free, students only pay when they take a test. The total cost of the online MBA degree? About $23,000, an incredible value when measured against $80,000 or more for a traditional MBA degree.

In looking at the world in terms of knowing what one doesn’t have to know, something is also lost. We seem to be losing an appreciation for complexity and nuance.

Everything is Not a Data Point

Douglas Rushkoff observes in his book Program or Be Programmed, that “not everything is a data point. Rushkoff warns that “net research is more about engaging with data in order to dismiss it and move on – like a magazine one flips through not to read but to make sure there’s nothing has has to be read. Reading becomes a process of elimination rather than deep engagement.  Life becomes about knowing how not to know what one doesn’t have to know.”

A Generation of Information Hunter Gatherers

We are becoming adept at scanning, looking for the nugget rather than context. But are we losing an appreciation for the deep understanding that comes from immersion in one discipline?  Rushkoff believes this ‘surfer’ experience that substitutes impressions with real knowledge is especially true of Millennials:

Young people, in particular, are developing the ability to get the gist of an entire area of study with just a moment of interaction with it. With a channel surfer’s skill, they are able to experience a book, movie, or even a scientific process almost intuitively. For them, hearing a few lines of T.S. Eliot, seeing one geometric proof, or looking at a picture of an African mask leave them with a real, albeit oversimplified, impression of the world from which it comes. This works especially well for areas of art and study that are ‘fractal’ or holographic in nature, where one tiny piece reflects the essence of the whole.”

As a professor, I have experienced this subtle shift over the past five years in the form of pressure to distill my classes to the essence of what is important.  The photo above is of my brand building library. As I sit down to plan a syllabus or class, I look at this bookshelf and despair – how can I possibly encapsulate this body of knowledge into finite, digestible, byte-sized pieces? It’s overwhelming. Somehow I doubt the professors of 50 years ago felt the same way. But then they didn’t have competition from a Facebook app.

Textbooks are becoming shorter and more condensed, in response to students’ impatience with long pages of text. Irrationally, I have come to judge my own competency as a teacher by how efficiently I can convey the concepts and complexity of the marketing and brand strategy without making unreasonable demands upon students. Increasingly, I see my job as the explorer coming back from a distant land to convey as much of what I know as is humanly possible to the untravelled audience in just 28 sessions.

Critical Thinking at Risk

A new book, Academically Adrift, is about to be released that reports the results of a study of 2,322 college students at a range of institutions from 2005-2009. Researchers discovered nearly half of the students didn’t learn “the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education” during their first two years of college.

“Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.”

Aside from the dismal overall finding, the specific findings of who did and didn’t learn are also telling:

“…The study also showed that students who studied alone made more significant gains in learning than those who studied in groups.”

“Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

“Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning.”

“Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.”

These results should be a wake up call to those of us in higher ed. College is not about byte-sized learning, it is about mastery and mastery requires more attention than what is required by hunting and gathering facts, or even learning how to hunt and gather facts.

The world is complex and getting more so. We can’t settle for simplicity.