Letters & Opinion

Education In An Information Age

By Clement Wulf-Soulage
By Clement Wulf-Soulage

IT goes without saying that Google and the Internet, almost beyond measure, have revolutionized the application and use of information and communication technology. The online era in many ways has made “feature mobile phones” as obsolete as the dial-up internet. Industry is becoming more information-intensive and data-centric, and less labour and capital-intensive. Perhaps already in a couple of years, we will all be walking around with the wearable technology “Google Glass”, just like the smart-phone has become a mass-market ubiquitous computer.

As time goes by, the term “literacy” will constantly be redefined and the unspoken assumptions of education policy will be challenged at every technological turn. As the American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler instructs us: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, relearn and unlearn.” Most strikingly, the digital information Zeitgeist has begun, to all intents and purposes, to redefine what it really means to be an “educated person”.

In the book, “Success in the Information Age: A Paradigm Shift”, the American Professor William G. Huitt summarized the major trends and megatrends associated with the Information Age and their implications for preparing children and youth for the future: “We are undergoing the most significant change ever experienced in human history. We have moved from the agricultural age through the industrial age and into the information age in a span of just 100 to 200 years. We have lived most of our human history in the hunter/gatherer age. In that environment the person with the best way to kill an animal or select the correct items to eat was most successful; in the agriculture age, the person with the most land and best agricultural machinery was most successful; and in the industrial age the person with the best manufacturing process or the most capital was most successful. Who will be most successful in the information age?” Alvin Toffler believes it will be the individual, group, community, society, or nation that has access to information and the ability to process it. He states that knowledge is the central aspect of today’s society.

As the knowledge and ideas economy revamp traditional models of education and thinking, our weltanschauung will increasingly be influenced and reshaped by exogenous forces, whose sole intent it appears is to boisterously trumpet the virtues of economic globalization, data centricity and the digital revolution.

Of further disquiet is the fact that we can’t seem to remain focussed and structured when we are persistently swept by the niagara of information that fills our daily life. How can our kids process and interpret the vast quantities of news and the disinformation that swirls around them? I’m afraid, information overload (also known as infobesity or infoxication) is our new reality and the deluge of irrelevant and repetitive data promises to increase even further. The question is, does this unlimited production of data make us knowledgeable experts or is the easy access to information making us stupid? Have we indeed become intellectually lazy?

A recent study by Jason Lodge of the Griffith Institute for Educational Research at Griffith University in Australia points out that “our modern lifestyles are making us “less intelligent” than our ancestors, at least at a genetic level. This research echoes concerns Einstein had when he supposedly said, “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots. The immediate availability of information has created a particular conundrum in our modern society. When it takes a mere few seconds to find information about almost any topic, the value of knowledge and expertise is being devalued as information becomes cheaper and more accessible. This is despite the fact that information, knowledge and expertise are fundamentally different entities.”
The point is there is undoubtedly more knowledge around today, but is contemporary society more intelligent and educated compared to the era of Mark Twain or John Maynard Keynes? Notwithstanding Einstein’s observation that the only source of knowledge is experience, a holistic education as a life skill is an active, complex and perpetual process which should eventually produce an independent, self-acting, problem-solving and life-loving personality. Education therefore cannot be reduced to knowledge. Knowledge is not the aim of education but simply a means to an end. Moreover, educational attainment manifests a certain kind of judgement, reflection and critical distance to the flurry of information bombarding us and competing for our attention.

Some readers will recall a few weeks ago, I published an article in this newspaper on the transformational potential of education policy. I argued that Saint Lucia’s system of education and training is woefully inadequate in the new global order, and that curricular subjects should have a greater global scope and dimension. Further, I urged our educators and policymakers to shape up by producing the right combination of talent in preparation for what the future proclaims as a complete transformation of motive rather than a straightforward substitution of activity. An important assertion made was that as our young people enter the workforce, the ability to deal with complex and often ambiguous information will be more important than simply knowing a lot of facts or having an accumulation of knowledge.

Mindful of the pernicious effects of technology and social media when used inappropriately, new approaches and pedagogical designs must be explored to engage students in complex interactions that require a high level of judgement, and thereby set the stage to rethink ideas that had not been questioned before. Countries like Finland and South Korea have demonstrated time and again that it’s not necessarily technical knowledge that is the key to competitive advantage, but imaginative and lateral thinking. Hence, the educational path we are walking is not well marked and this will make it difficult for us to traverse the information superhighway.

So what should education look like in this Information Age of enlightenment? How do you recognize an educated person today? Should we only be interested in translating technical proficiency into economic output? I believe education today should be strategically tailored to help students achieve research efficiency and impart skills to facilitate information filtration.

For the educated, educational and social informatics is like a second sun. Yet that sun doesn’t seem to shine so brightly in many areas of the high-tech and knowledge economy. I’ll be one of the first to bemoan the inverse relationship between technology and soft skills. The information superhighway seemed to have placed technical and conceptual skills on a pedestal, at the expense of the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. In a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience, well-rounded professionals with effective communication and presentation skills are few and far between. The ironic thing about the lack of strong communication skills among IT and other knowledge workers is the fact that it’s the one field where communication is so important.

In order to counteract the information overload unleashed by the digital age, we’ll need to employ more strategic soft skills and critical thinking to help us cut through the data clutter, present information with more clarity and make clearer decisions and choices.

So as young people move toward lives in the professional world, they have new soft skills to keep in mind. I believe some of us are so focused on one thing such as getting our degree that it can come as no surprise when we are no good at team activities, organization, self management, social interaction and communication, after leaving university. There have always been—and will always be—certain soft skills, like emotional intelligence and compensation strategies, that people will need to master in the professional world. Industry leaders agree there is a growing need for these essential soft skills, and students entering the workforce who can demonstrate strong personal and social competence have a huge competitive advantage in a dynamic, data-centric and talent-intensive economy.

As someone who understands the need for a good balance between technology, social competence and traditional educational methods, I’ll be glad to say good riddance to any educational culture that glorifies technical know-how at the expense of an education touched by character and morality.

For comments, write to [email protected] – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.

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