The future of education: reboot required

Author and technology expert Don Tapscott talks about the need for change at schools and universities, advocating a collaborative, student-focused education system

Q & A: Don Tapscott

Students take a university entrance examination at a lecture hall in Seville, Spain, Sept. 15, 2009. (Marcelo Del Pozo/Reuters) (Marcelo Del Pozo/Reuters)

Don Tapscott is better known as a business and technology expert but at the University of Alberta in the 1970s he studied education. 

He combined his expertise authoring the books Growing up Digital (1997) and Grown up Digital (2009).

His latest book, Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World, which will be published in September, includes a chapter on University 2.0. Tapscott believes our times require sweeping changes and he advocates a collaborative approach: in learning, course creation and content, and in the required innovation.

This interview was conducted by email while Don Tapscott was travelling in Asia.

Don Tapscott gives the keynote speech at the Texas Association of School Administrators Midwinter Conference in Austin, Texas on Jan. 25. (Photo courtesy of Don Tapscott)

You have a Master of Education degree. Back then, the educational system was under attack by its students and some educators. How did the critical thinking about education in that era influence your thinking about what's wrong with the system today?

A great deal. It was clear to me and many others that the system was inherently flawed, but the solution wasn't evident. 

It's easy to say that students deserved a much richer and more interactive learning environment, but how could one achieve that pre-internet? There were only so many hours in a teacher or professor's day. 

But now we have the means to build an educational environment that is tailored to each student's need and desires and that enables students to learn through collaboration.

A pair of videos on YouTube leave the impression that what's wrong with the education system is not that different for university and K-12.  What do you think?

(The other video is A vision of K-12 students today.) 

I think that is true. Certainly for undergraduate degrees I see little difference between K-12 and university. 

The methodology is much the same: It is the industrial model of student mass production, where the teacher is the broadcaster. A broadcast is by definition the transmission of information from transmitter to receiver in a one-way, linear fashion. The teacher is the transmitter and [the] student is a receptor in the learning process.

The formula goes like this: "I'm a professor and I have knowledge. You're a student you're an empty vessel and you don't. Get ready, here it comes. Your goal is to take this data into your short-term memory and through practice and repetition build deeper cognitive structures so you can recall it to me when I test you."

The principal difference I see between K-12 and undergraduate studies is the class size. Universities are now admitting 700 to 1,000 students for classes such as chemistry, psychology or physics. Lectures are videotaped and available online. Why go to class? Indeed, just as with airlines, universities now overbook classes. If all the students registered in a class actually showed up one day they wouldn't fit in.

At the graduate level, we start seeing genuine and meaningful professor-student interaction. We start seeing education as it should be done. The student is encouraged to think creatively and do original research. The professor is an adviser, and makes no pretence that he/she has all the knowledge that is worth learning.

Schools, universities slow to change

In Grown Up Digital, the Educause article and the forthcoming Macrowikinomics, you describe an education system ill-suited to our times and to net generation students. The students realize this. So do many educators. Why is change happening so slowly in schools and universities?  

The Industrial Age model of education is hard to change. New paradigms cause dislocation, disruption, confusion, and uncertainty. They are nearly always received with coolness or hostility. Vested interests fight change, and leaders of old paradigms are often the last to embrace the new.

Students attend a lecture on Chinese history at Changzhi college in Changzhi, China on Oct. 14, 2008. (Stringer Shanghai/Reuters)

There are a lot of sacred cows. Today the university system is designed to reward research, not teaching. If universities are to become institutions whose primary goal is student — not faculty — learning, incentive systems will need to change. Tenure should be granted for teaching excellence, not just for one's publishing record. 

How will universities get re-booted? It's hard to imagine a political figure, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, effectively demanding, "Mr. University President, tear down these walls!" On the other hand, the education system would seem to be no match for a well-organized movement of net-gen students.

I think the net generation will be a key driver for change. They have the knowledge and tools to challenge the existing model, and I see a growing generational clash. 

I also think some administrations will recognize that the writing is on the wall. 

If students can pass a course by never attending class and watching the lectures online, why should the student be restricted to only those courses available at that university? If it's online, why not choose from the courses offered at other universities. I also see a lot of the old guard faculty retiring soon. That will help generate fresh thinking.

Focus on the students

In your earlier work, you advised businesses to focus on the customer. You have similar advice for schools and universities. What does it mean to focus on the student?

Being student-focused means understanding the unprecedented needs of today's youth. They are the first generation to come of age in the digital age. Computers, the internet, mobile devices, games and other technologies are part of the experience of youth.

And time online is taken away from time watching television. Their parents — the baby boomers — as teenagers watched 24 hours of television each week. Youth today are abandoning one-way TV for the higher stimulus of interactive communication they find on the internet.

Don Tapscott poses for a promotional photo on July 19. (Kris Krug)

Sitting mutely in front of a TV set — or a professor — doesn't appeal to or work for this generation. They learn best through non-sequential, interactive, asynchronous, multi-tasked and collaborative activities.

Digital immersion at a formative stage of life has affected their brain development and consequently the way they think and learn.

Growing up digital has changed the way their minds work in a manner that helps them cope with the challenges of the digital age. They're used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload. They expect a two-way conversation.

What's more, growing up digital has encouraged this generation to be active and demanding inquirers. Rather than waiting for a trusted professor to tell them what's going on, they find out on their own on everything from Google to Wikipedia.

Better ways to learn

A high school student I asked about better ways for students to learn suggested, "being allowed to make our own conclusions would be a really interesting way. Also hands-on approaches, games, group activities, research projects where we take our own initiative. Taking our own initiative is a big part of what would make learning better in high school because nowadays it's very passive learning, you sit and the teacher tells you what things are like and then you read the textbook."

Tell us about a  school that you think is [almost] getting it right, one the student I quoted would like.

Let me tell you about an elementary school in Portugal. In early 2005, the country's economy was sagging and it was running out of the usual economic fixes. It also scored some of the lowest educational achievement results in western Europe.

So Prime Minister José Sócrates took a courageous step. He decided to invest heavily in a "technological shock" to jolt his country into the 21st century. This meant, among other things, that he'd make sure everyone in the workforce could handle a computer and use the internet effectively.

The logical place to start was in school, where there was only one computer for five kids. Today nearly nine out of 10 students in Grades 1 to 4 have a laptop on their desk. The impact on the classroom is tremendous, as I saw recently when I toured a classroom of seven-year-olds in a public school in Lisbon. It was the most exciting, noisy, collaborative classroom I have seen in the world.

The teacher directed the kids to an astronomy blog with a beautiful colour image of a rotating solar system on the screen. "Now," said the teacher, "who knows what the equinox is?"

Nobody knew.

"All right, why don't you find out?"

Thomas Gaffey teaches a class to students at the School of the Future in Philadelphia on May 20. The school, a joint project of the Philadelphia School District and Microsoft, opened in 2006. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

The chattering began, as the children clustered together to figure out what an equinox was. Then one group leapt up and waved their hands. They found it! They then proceeded to explain the idea to their classmates. This is how learning should happen.

What would it mean for society at large to have schools and universities that are collaborative and student-focused?

Good things would happen. The global knowledge economy and society changes the purpose of higher education. In the old model, teachers taught and students were expected to learn and be able to demonstrate their knowledge. Education was about absorbing content and being able to recall it on exams, and after graduation at a job.

But the knowledge economy changes all that. Yesterday you graduated and you were set for life — just "keeping" up in your chosen field. Today when you graduate you're set for, say, 15 minutes. If you took a technical course, half of what you learned in the first year may be obsolete by the fourth year.

Of course, you still need a knowledge base, and you can't Google your way through every activity and conversation. But what counts more, is your capacity to learn lifelong, to think, research, find information, analyze, synthesize, contextualize, critically evaluate it; to apply research to solving problems; to collaborate and communicate. 

This is particularly important for students (and employers) who are increasingly competing in a global economy. Labour markets are now global and given networked business models, knowledge workers are being subjected to market forces in real-time. They must learn, adapt and perform like never before.

Not to mention that the purpose of education goes beyond creating future employees with good skills and knowledge. We need good citizens.