Thinkniks: trad v. fad

May 18, 2001

In educating the knowledge workers of the future, or the 'thinknik' class, e-learning efforts must put a premium on hard work and human interaction, argues Michael Zastrocky.

In the past decade, the knowledge industries have been recognised as drivers of economic expansion, and the demand for technology competence and knowledge workers has outstripped supply. In the United States, a group of senators recently introduced a bill to provide tax credits to businesses and individuals who pay for technology training. Developing nations are betting on educational systems to provide them with more knowledge workers, and higher education is becoming a national priority in an expanded global economy. If a nation underinvests and its people fail to achieve some level of academic achievement in the knowledge economy, it will face serious competitive disadvantages.

Many leaders have come to see e-learning as the answer to the increased global demand for knowledge workers. For some, e-learning is the answer to every education need and woe; for others it is nothing more than the latest fad. The reality, as is often the case, lies somewhere in between.

College and university leaders will increasingly help to define appropriate uses of technology that enhance the pleasures of learning without compromising the intellectual discipline that distinguishes the academy from its commercial competition.

By 2002, the key issue in e-learning will have shifted from building delivery infrastructure to managing rich digital content and building relationships. As software, content and network resources begin to merge, university leaders will have to assess the merits of products and techniques that promise to enliven, extend and accelerate classroom learning. Institutions will also need to educate faculty and executives about the potential in distributed-learning pedagogy while understanding and enforcing their sometimes well-founded suspicions about vendors' and politicians' commitment to content quality and intellectual rigour.

Some ways that e-learning resources can strengthen learning include the following:

* Aiding visualisation of difficult concepts through graphical displays or video presentations

* Using virtual reality and simulations

* Enabling web-based "field trips" that allow learners to use limited resources and collections and scientific experiments normally unavailable in traditional learning environments

* Creating extra-institutional learning communities that bring together students, instructors and others who share common interests in a subject.

Many political and business leaders fail to recognise that organisations and societies need people who possess more than just information and knowledge - technology can deliver that. The real value of e-learning lies in the human connection, which is vital in building wisdom and understanding. A recent study at New Zealand's University of Waikato indicated that e-learning students valued the ability to communicate electronically with teachers and other students more than the richer content provided.

The human connection can and should be strengthened through e-learning tools and technologies. Students who may not be comfortable asking a question of a teacher in a classroom do not hesitate to ask questions in the e-learning environment. They also get responses from other students as well as the teacher.

As in other schemes, success in e-learning programmes is directly related to how much hard work is put in. E-learning may provide tools and resources to make learning more exciting, but its infrastructure must require hard work of teachers and learners. Instructional design specialists will need to provide good technology to teachers who are discipline specialists.

The continued support and advancement of networks, hardware and software to support e-learning will stretch human and capital resources. Keeping up with the knowledge explosion will push teachers and support specialists. Students must work hard to succeed in this environment, and slackers will find themselves less able to hide.

Successful e-learning programmes will rest not on technologies but on the strength of the human interface and hard work. E-learning can bring about stronger relationships between learners and teachers and give students opportunities to overcome physical and mental limitations. However, just as the athlete needs to train and exercise hard, so does a student seeking an education need to be as diligent in exercising the mind and training for knowledge and - ultimately - wisdom and understanding. Token efforts will not do for institutions, either: e-learning will require big investments and commitments.

E-learning can provide resources and technologies that expand the teaching and learning experience and help us educate the knowledge workers of the future. It can be used to build learning communities that provide opportunities for building wisdom and understanding. Leadership will have to ask tough questions and be willing to provide resources to answer those questions. And universities must take care that e-learning initiatives are not diluted by the notion that a university is simply a place where one purchases immediately useful content or instruction.

Michael Zastrocky is vice-president and research director of Gartner Group.

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