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Monday, September 6, 2010

Rifkin and Levine: Two Views of the Transformation of Education

NOTE: I also posted this on my Sloan Consortium blog in July 2010.

Today, there are increasingly powerful signs that education is on the verge of being transformed as the Knowledge Society matures and as a generation of digital natives shapes a new social dynamic. This came into sharp focus recently in articles by two veteran public thinkers about education and society—Jeremy Rifkin, the author of The End of Work and founder of the Foundation on Economic Trends, and Arthur Levine, president emeritus of Teachers College at Columbia University and currently president of the Woodrow Wilson National Foundation.

In a May 10, 2010, Chronicle of Higher Education commentary Jeremy Rifkin wrote about “Empathic Education: The Transformation of Learning in an Interconnected World.” Given the changes happening worldwide, he writes, “Maybe it’s time to ask the question of whether simply becoming economically productive ought to be the primary mission of American education.” He proposes that, instead, educators put more emphasis on “developing students’ innate empathic drives, so that we can prepare the next generation to think and act as part of a global family in a shared biosphere.”

Today, he notes, “New teaching models designed to transform education from a competitive contest to a collaborative and empathic learning experience are emerging as schools and colleges try to reach a generation that has grown up on the Internet and is used to interacting in open social networks where information is shared rather than hoarded.” This is accompanied by a new view of teaching, a shift from the top-down expert-based system to “a distributed and collaborative educational experience designed to instill a sense of the shared nature of knowledge.”

Arthur Levine articulated his own view of transformation in a June 14, 2010, Inside Higher Education article entitled “Digital Students, Industrial-Era Universities.” Levine observes that, while our institutions were designed to meet the needs of the industrial revolution, our students are now “digital natives” – children of the Information Revolution. While institutions are focused on the process of instruction—defined by semesters—“digital natives are more concerned with the outcomes of education—learning and the mastery of content, achieves in the manner of games” where the issues is not how long one has played but what level one has mastered.

Interestingly, Levine and Rifkin have similar ideas about where this transformation (the over-used notion of a paradigm shift seems perfectly appropriate here) will take higher education. “What must change, “ says Levine, “ . . . is the means by which we educate the digital natives who are and will be sitting in our classrooms—employing calendars, locations, pedagogies, and learning materials consistent with ways our students learn most effectively. It means that the curriculum must meet our students where they are, not where we hope they might be or where we are.” He adds, “. . . higher education must in the years ahead move away from its emphasis on teaching to learning, from its focus on common processes to common outcomes.” Similarly, in Rifkin’s model of distributed and collaborative learning environments, “Learning becomes less about pounding facts into individual students’ brains and more about how to think collaboratively and critically.”

Where will online learning fit into the transformed university? While increasing access will continue to be critical need, it is important that we also emphasize how online learning can help higher education institutions create a new pedagogy for both on-campus and distant students. As Levine notes, “In an information economy, there is no more important social institution than the university in its capacity to fuel our economy, our society and our minds.”