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Tertiary Level Teaching in the Digital Age

The digital age is characterized by knowledge explosion and accessibility.  At no other time in the history of mankind have students had so much information – now at the click of their buttons. Today, for the interested student, it is knowledge management rather than knowledge transmission that is required many experts now say.

The Conference Board of Canada summarizes the ‘Employability Skills’ required in this digital age.  Communication skills are needed. In addition to the traditional communication skills of reading, speaking and writing coherently and clearly, the Board adds social media communication skills.

The ability to learn independently, that is the student taking responsibility for working out what she needs to know, and where to find that knowledge is also important because the knowledge-base is constantly changing. Ethics and responsibility, says the Board, is required to build trust which is ‘Needed in informal social network but critical in a world where there are many different players, and a greater degree of reliance on others to accomplish one’s own goals.’

Teamwork and flexibility is another crucial skill needed now as ‘Knowledge workers need to know how to work collaboratively, virtually and at a distance, with colleagues, clients and partners. The ‘pooling’ of collective knowledge, problem-solving and implementation requires good teamwork and flexibility in taking on tasks or solving problems that may be outside a narrow job definition but necessary for success.’

W. Tony Bates, writing on the subject of teaching in the Digital Age  explains that thinking skills,  ‘Meaning critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, originality, strategizing are, perhaps, the most important skills needed in a knowledge-based society as businesses increasingly depend on the creation of new products, new services and new processes to keep down costs and increase competitiveness. Because most knowledge-based activities depend heavily on the use of technology, digital skills are critical especially when integrated with and evaluated through the knowledge-base of the subject area.’

Many observers point out that knowledge management is perhaps the most over-arching of all the skills.  Bates says that ‘Knowledge is not only rapidly changing with new research, new developments, and rapid dissemination of ideas and practices over the Internet, but the sources of information are increasing, with a great deal of variability in the reliability or validity of the information. Thus the knowledge that an engineer learns at university can quickly become obsolete. There is so much information now in the health area that it is impossible for a medical student to master all drug treatments, medical procedures and emerging science such as genetic engineering, even within an eight year program. The key skill in a knowledge-based society is knowledge management: how to find, evaluate, analyze, apply and disseminate information, within a particular context.’

This is a skill that graduates will need to employ long after graduation.

I agree with those who contend that the development of these skills requires a fundamental and irreversible shift in teaching and learning strategies.

The focus must be less on information transmission and more on questioning, exploration of ideas, presentation of alternative viewpoints, and the development of critical or original thinking as these are the very skills needed by students in a knowledge-based society.

In this respect, the lecture approach, though it has some continuing utility, is largely irrelevant to the digital age. The lecture approach, consistent with structured classrooms which were creatures of the industrial age, was birthed when books were few and knowledge confined and held at premium value because of its scarcity. But the truth is that most current students cannot bear lectures beyond 20 minutes even with the most dramatic and interesting styles of presentation. The challenge is to use lectures sparingly to begin a course, to focus on key concepts, for summative reasons and so on as students are expecting lectures especially to keep them focused and to explain knotty concepts.

With information available quickly and in huge volumes, the focus must be on how to manage knowledge, not how to give it; on dialogue and discussion and ‘practical, personal and social skills’ and not on that method, ‘the lecture’ which in Latin means ‘reading.’

So with the necessary downgrade or reform of the ‘lecture approach’ the facilitator must provide more student oriented methods such as project, case and problem-based learning, collaborative learning, inquiry-based learning, seminars and tutorials. The research says that these methods require much more frequent interaction with students and are much more likely to develop deeper forms of learning.

It is also believed that these methods allow for deeper levels of assessment based on analysis, synthesis, comparison and evaluation rather than on testing for memory-based information.

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