In The Third Industrial Revolution, Jeremy Rifkin argues that we are now in the midst of a new industrial revolution—one that is significantly different from the previous ones and that already is transforming the economy and daily life. Rifkin’s analysis of the new social order has significant implications for higher education that potentially are as far-reaching as the original industrial revolution of the 19th century, which stimulated the development and growth of the public college and university system in the United States.
The first Industrial Revolution, in the late 18th century through the 19th century, was built on coal and oil. It fueled a revolution in transportation and manufacturing. In the United States, one implication was urbanization, as manufacturing centers were created in cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago. Another was immigration, as working class people came from across Europe to seek new industrial jobs. One response was the land grant university, created to increase the supply of professionals in the “practical and mechanical” arts and to enhance agricultural productivity in order to sustain urbanization. Another response was the system of “normal schools”—teacher education institutions that became the foundation of our state college and university system—created to ensure the supply of teachers to educate the millions of immigrant children.
The second industrial revolution began in the early 20th century and was driven by gas and communications, both of which required highly centralized top-down structures. This revolutionized transportation and created the mass media that dominated the latter half of the 20th century.
The third industrial revolution began after World War II. It, too, is driven by energy and communications. As Rifkin notes, “Communication technology is the nervous system that oversees, coordinates, and manages the economic organism, and energy is the blood that circulates through the body politic, providing the nourishment to convert nature’s endowment into goods and services to keep the economy alive and growing” (p. 35). However, unlike the previous revolutions, neither energy nor communications are organized as centralized, top-down ventures. Communications are dominated by the Internet, with its multiple sources of input and access; energy, increasingly, is dominated not by oil and gas but by renewable sources—solar and wind, for instance—that enter the system at multiple points, such as the solar panels on a suburban residential roof. Today’s electrical grid, increasingly, is a network in which users are also providers. People subscribe to an electrical provider, but also produce their own solar and wind energy, some of which is sold back to the provider. As Rifkin notes, “The democratization of energy will bring with it a fundamental reordering of human relationships, impacting the very way we conduct business, govern society, educate our children, and engage in civic life” (p. 2).
At the same time, this Third Industrial Revolution is increasingly dominated by the Internet, which is redefining how individuals identify themselves in association with others. "Today,” writes Rifkin, “distributed information and communication technologies are converging with distributed renewable energies, creating the infrastructure for a Third Industrial Revolution and paving the way for biosphere consciousness” (p. 234). One of the implications, he notes, is an increasing awareness that individuals are part of a global community:
“For a younger, educated generation that is becoming part of a global community and is as likely to identify with Facebook as with traditional tribal loyalties, the old ways are an anathema. The patriarchal thinking, rigid social norms, and xenophobic behavior of their elders is so utterly alien to the generation that has grown up in social media networks, with an emphasis on transparency, collaborative behavior, and peer-to-peer relations, that it marks a historic divide in consciousness itself” (p. 17).
This networked social environment is fostering a new economy marked by collaboration that is “fundamentally at odds with classical economic theory, which puts great store on the assumption that individual self-interest in the marketplace is the only effective way to drive economic growth” (p. 126). Instead, Rifkin argues, “The new model favors lateral ventures, both in social commons and in the market place, on the assumption that mutual interest, pursued jointly, is the best route to sustainable economic development” (ibid.).
Rifkin identifies five pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution, which he maintains are tools that “can enable us to re-integrate into the natural world” (p. 238):
- Shifting to renewable energy;
- Transforming the building stock of every continent into micro-power plans to collect renewable energies on site;
- Deploying hydrogen and other storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure to store intermittent energies;
- Using Internet technology to transform the power grid of every continent into an energy-sharing intergrid that acts just like the Internet (when millions of buildings are generating a small amount of energy locally, on site, they can sell surplus back); and
- Transitioning the transport fleet to elect plug-in and fuel cell vehicles that can buy and sell electricity on a smart, continental, interactive power grid.
The TIR and Education
The idea of a Third Industrial Revolution has been building for several decades. As far back as 1970, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock suggested that things were changing in some of the same directions that Rifkin reports. For instance, Future Shock predicted a new “ad hoc” generation that would be less willing to affiliate. He also worried about the dangers of a glut of information. We were still two decades away from the Internet and a clearer vision of where the Information Revolution might take us. It was not long, however, before experts began to worry about the role of education in this new age. As early as 1986, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching reported, “The undergraduate college, the very heard of higher learning, is a troubled institution . . . Colleges appear to be searching for meaning in a world where diversity, not commonality, is the guiding vision” (p.16).
Today—with two decades the first Internet browser introduced the World Wide Web—the issues are much clearer. Rifkin’s analysis suggests that the Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) will be as important to the future of public higher education as was the first. To see the full potential, we need to look at all three legs of the public higher education stool: instruction, research, and engagement.
TIR and Instruction
Rifkin argues that the Third Industrial Revolution calls for what he dubs a “lateral” approach to education. He notes that, “the dominant, top-down approach to teaching, the aim of which is to create a competitive autonomous being, is beginning to give way to a distributed and collaborative educational experience with an eye to instilling a sense of the social nature of knowledge” (p.241).
I discussed the impact of the Information Revolution on general education in a blog posting in 2011. However, we need to think more broadly about how to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of a new society. The roots of this approach can be traced back John Dewey’s early progressive education philosophy. However, more recently, the move to a more learner-centered, inquiry-based collaborative learning environment has arisen out of two decades of experience with online learning. We are seeing pedagogical innovations like blended learning, which mixes online and classroom experiences; the flipped classroom, which uses out-of-class media for knowledge transfer, leaving classroom time for discussion and collaboration; and communities of inquiry, which build the educational experience through the integration of the learners’ social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence.
Recently, the Ontario Online Learning Portal published on its website an article entitled “A New Pedagogy is Emerging . . . and Online Learning is a Key ContributingFactor” that describes an emerging pedagogical model emphasizes the development of seven dynamics in the learning environment:
- A commitment to blended learning.
- Collaboration and building communities of practice that encourage students to share experiences, discuss ideas, learn from each other, and otherwise collaborate to build knowledge around information.
- The flipped classroom—using multimedia and open education resources, rather than classroom sessions, to deliver organized.
- Increased learner control, choice, and independence.
- Anywhere, anytime, any size learning, such as the development of smaller “just-in-time” mobile learning modules that can be aggregated into courses, certificates, degrees.
- New forms of assessment, including e-portfolios, peer assessment, and the use of learning analytics.
- Self-directed and non-formal online learning
Institutions must both encourage and support faculty innovation by providing instructional designers and professional development opportunities that will allow these innovations to move more quickly into the mainstream so that our institutions can better serve students.
TIR and the Research Mission
The lateral quality of the new environment can also have significant impacts on research. The Internet makes it easier for researchers to collaborate across institutions and to maintain connection with practitioners and users of their research results throughout the research and development process. One example of this at work is the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) . Now in its second decade, this network of 17 research universities on five continents is committed to creating
. . . new, multilateral opportunities for international collaboration in research and graduate education. It is a flexible, dynamic organisation that uses the combined resources and intellectual power of its membership to achieve collective international objectives and to stretch international ambitions.
WUN uses a variety of technologies—from email discussion lists to desktop videoconferencing—to bring researchers together into communities and to share resources and files within a community.
The new environment encourages the creation of lateral research communities. These can be cross-university collaborations among researchers, inter-disciplinary collaborations that attack multiple aspects of a single problem, international or cross-cultural partnerships, or multi-faceted collaborations that bring together academic researchers, professional/practitioner communities, and other agencies—industries, government agencies, community organizations, etc.—to contribute problems, possible solutions, theories, data, etc., all directed toward continuous improvement.
TIR and University Engagement
The idea of lateral connections is a perfect match to the University’s public engagement mission. At the end of the 19th century, a major focus of engagement was the need to help farmers increase the agricultural productivity in order to sustain the combined forces of immigration and urbanization that were essential to large-scale industrialization. The Cooperative Extension Service was formed to ensure that research expertise was present in every county to assist farmers. Today’s technology allows us to be much more effective in reaching and serving communities—themselves often distributed thinly across a state (or across multiple states). MOOCs and other digital resources allow us to create communities that include both academics and practitioners and to share knowledge, practical problems, success stories, and other experiences within the community. This can be applied well beyond agriculture—think rural community sustainability, urban redevelopment, small business development, environmental safety, etc. The user communities need no longer be defined by geography. Nor must we be limited to local faculty capacity in order to bring the best knowledge to the community.
I wrote about this opportunity in a recent blog posting. There are many opportunities here for the University to engage the community in this new environment. Lateral engagement means developing meaningful, multi-point relationships—true communities—among faculty, community organizations, and individuals for training, research and technology transfer, and community/organizational development.
Most public colleges and universities can already point to some examples of these new lateral relationships in teaching/learning, research, or engagement. The challenge facing us as a field is to think and act more strategically—to embrace the Third Industrial Revolution and organize our resources to support it in our states and regions. Higher education is an inherently decentralized social organization. The key to succeeding in this new environment is not simply to mandate top-down changes, but to create an organizational and policy framework that will encourage and support new lateral relationships in each of the three main missions of teaching/learning, research, and engagement.