How Can Educators Prepare for the Networked Era?

8562448300_0c2c785096_hGuest post by Harold Jarche

We are in the midst of a ‘nano-bio-info-techno-cogno’ revolution. We are entering the network era, and change is coming fast. That may sound like a cliché, but not when you consider the last major shifts we went through and the time our institutions had to adapt. When markets came about, we had a few hundred years to move from the Hanseatic League, adopt double-entry bookkeeping, and progress to high frequency trading. We also were able to develop public education systems, from one-room schoolhouses, to open universities, and later business schools to fuel the new corporations.

The period of 1900 to 1920 saw a significant shift in the American economy, with manufacturing replacing farming as the dominant economic activity. The resulting demographic shift was millions of men leaving farms and moving to factories. One hundred years later and we are witnessing a similar shift, from the industrial economy to the network era and a creative economy.

Today, knowledge-based work is replacing manufacturing jobs. Robots and software are displacing routine work. Meanwhile, collaborative work is dominating both transactional and production work. The future of valued, human work is in addressing complex problems and coming up with creative solutions.

The network era is upon us. With an external environment that is highly connected, all organizations have to get better connected inside. Faster external feedback loops, from communities and markets, challenge the institution’s ability to act. Quite often, the solutions are staring us in the face. We just have to stop looking in the rear-view mirror and see the many possible roads ahead.

One major difference between the 21st century and the work shift of the last century is that there are no jobs waiting for displaced workers today. One hundred years ago farm hands could move to the city and get a job. Today, the future of work is not in the form of a job. This may be a shock to those already in the workforce but it is an accepted reality amongst many younger people.

With creative work, much of the knowledge required is implicit. It cannot be found in a manual or text book, and there is no training program to become creative. Informal learning, often with peers, is how how creative workers have learned through the ages. We need to take the best aspects of what the artist studios and artisan guilds offered and find ways to replicate these. Social experiments, such as co-work spaces and crowd-funded projects, are emerging in the creative economy.

While the industrialists would have preferred education as socialization, and the progressives would have leaned toward education as learning about truth, we are stuck with a standardized curriculum that benefits few.

Networks are beginning to replace hierarchies as the organizational model to get work done and exchange value. Jobs are relics of hierarchies. In networks, there is no need for standardized and replaceable jobs. Every node is unique, which strengthens the overall network. In a network, relying on standard approaches only erodes trust, as it does not treat each node as an individual. Knowledge networks are built on human relationships and trust emerges over time.

When there is no normal (and no best practices to follow) then the central authority’s role has to be to support with a gentle hand. That does not mean there is no leadership, just less control and greater autonomy for staff. Hierarchies do not need to be the natural organizational model. People can work in self-managing networks.

Learn Shift

Today, we are seriously lagging behind in learning how to deal with the scientific advances of the network era. We do not have the time afforded to us during the last shift to a market society. We have to jump from following state-established curriculum to creating our own learning networks: in this generation. People need to learn and work in networks, shifting their hierarchical position from teacher to learner, or from manager to contributor. They need to not only take control of their professional development but find others who can help them. It is becoming obvious in many fields that we are only as good as our knowledge networks. We have to become collectively smarter.

Consider the number of unemployed PhD holders today, educated for the last economy but adrift in this one. We need to take control of our learning, as neither the established institutions nor the markets will help us. Knowledge networks are the only answer, but we have to build them, and this should start in school.

Complex problems require the sharing of tacit knowledge, which cannot easily be put into a manual. We know that tacit knowledge flows best in trusted networks. But sharing knowledge in trusted networks does not happen overnight.

If those who are educated, knowledgeable, and experienced do not push for a better world of education and work, then who will? Any effective knowledge network cultivates the diversity and autonomy of each person. Knowledge networks function best when we can choose with whom and when we connect.

Educator Shift

Addressing the problems of centralization is an issue with all established institutions as we shift from an industrial to a networked economy. First we might look at the underlying premises of the current Western education systems. According to Professor Kieran Egan, in his book, ‘The Educated Mind’ (1), three premises compete for attention in our public education systems:

1. education as socialization
2. education as a quest for truth (Plato)
3. education as the realization of individual potential (Rousseau)

No one premise can dominate without precluding the others, so we continue to have conflict in our education systems. When one dominates, then the others get less attention. We see this in initiatives like ‘no child left behind’ or the demise of music and physical education in some schools. There is no clear idea of what our education systems are trying to achieve, and we constantly go through “flavor of the year” initiatives. But no single approach is appropriate for a modern networked society, as Egan explains:

“Socialization to generally agreed norms and values that we have inherited is no longer straightforwardly viable in modern multicultural societies undergoing rapid technology-driven changes. The Platonic program comes with ideas about reaching a transcendent truth or privileged knowledge that is no longer credible. The conception of individual development we have inherited is based on a belief in some culture-neutral process that is no longer sustainable.”

Public education has become all things to all people, and this conflict is clear in Egan’s book. Schools cannot socialize, seek the truth, and realize individual potential, all at the same time – within a single, enclosed system. Our public education system was created to give equal access to all (a good thing) and to prepare workers for industrial jobs (a self-serving thing for the industrialists). Public education was embraced by reformers as well as factory owners. It was the child of a shotgun wedding.

The lack of agreement on what our education system should be is muddying the waters in our discussions about learning. When reduced to the basic process, learning is an individual and personal activity. But learning also has significant social aspects and can be helped or hindered in many ways. How we build systems to nurture, support, or coerce it, are the issues that we can address as a community.

Direction Shift

While the industrialists would have preferred education as socialization, and the progressives would have leaned toward education as learning about truth, we are stuck with a standardized curriculum that benefits few. In addition, the education system is in for some new competition. We may soon get invited to another shotgun wedding, this time between techno-utopians, with financial speculators as bridesmaids; and libertarians, who feel the state and teachers have screwed-up education. It will be education as socialization, but socialization to the dominant business paradigm. However, problems with any education system are mostly a result of the governance and economic environment in which it resides.

What can educational leaders do?

1. Decentralize.
2. Allow for experimentation at the local level.
3. Empower teachers in a transparent manner so everyone can see what is happening.

Creating a diverse educational ecosystem builds a resilient response to future changes. The more experiments that are tested now, the more options we will have to deal with in an uncertain future. Sadly, we may just continue to stumble into an increasingly complex future, for which many of our institutions are poorly prepared. Now is the time to try something else. Educators have to be active experimenters and learners.

For instance, personal knowledge management (PKM) is a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each person make sense of the world and work more effectively. PKM means taking control of one’s professional development, and staying connected to knowledge networks. I have developed a framework called Seek > Sense > Share, to help people engage in sense-making and critical thinking. In 2013, the Bangor University School of Psychology adopted the PKM framework and used it as an anchor for its undergraduate students. The objective was to support self-directed learners who upon graduation will have developed a professional learning network as well as the skills of seeking, sense-making, and sharing. Students are supported in channeling, recording, and indexing their thoughts, and to engage in online discussions outside their programs. Faculty at this Welsh university realized that only preparing students with knowledge was not enough. For example, one student was able to connect with an American university for graduate work. This connection with a faculty member would not have happened if she had not been openly blogging about her research. The PKM framework is one way that students and teachers can promote curiosity and increase knowledge connections.

When work is learning and learning is the work, educational leaders have to ensure that their energies support graduates who will have to learn in order to be successful in the network era.

Reference (1):

Image credit: Kevin Dooley

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *