A Force to Behold

One of the world’s leading experts on technology’s impact on society has a few words to say about the future of education and which generation is the one to watch.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Don TapscottHe rubs elbows with kings and presidents, has more frequent flyer miles in a year than most people accrue in a lifetime, but what really keeps him going are the power of ideas. Don Tapscott is one of the world’s leading authorities on innovation, media, and the economic and social impact of technology and advises business and government leaders around the world. In 2011, Don was named one of the world’s most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50. He has authored or co-authored 14 widely read books including the 1992 best seller Paradigm Shift. His 1995 hit, The Digital Economy changed thinking around the world about the transformational nature of the Internet and two years later he defined the Net Generation and the “digital divide” in Growing Up Digital. His 2000 work, Digital Capital, introduced seminal ideas like “the business web” and was described by BusinessWeek as “pure enlightenment.” Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything was the best selling management book in 2007 and translated into over 25 languages. The Economist called his newest work Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet a “Schumpeter-ian story of creative destruction” and the Huffington Post said the book is “nothing less than a game plan to fix a broken world.” Over 30 years he has introduced many groundbreaking concepts that are part of contemporary understanding. His work continues as CEO of The Tapscott Group, a member of World Economic ForumChancellor of Trent University, Adjunct Professor of Management for the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and Martin Prosperity Institute Fellow. In this EdTech Digest exclusive, Don takes us through the changes of the last two decades since the publication of his seminal work Paradigm Shift, discusses knowledge with a twist, answers the question will there be third book after Growing Up Digital and Grown Up Digital, tells us which generation in particular he is currently super-interested in and why, thoughts on what will happen to higher education after the impact of the digital revolution is fully felt, and what we should seize upon now for a better tomorrow.

Victor: A lot has changed in 20 years (Happy Birthday, Paradigm Shift!) Specifically in education, how would you characterize this change?

Don: 1994 was a huge year. We had the Internet and were just being introduced to the World Wide Web and the first browser, called Mosaic. In its early days, the Web was a platform for the presentation of content. It was a publishing medium. Today it is a platform for collaboration.

Universities are facing a perfect storm. We have a new Web, a new generation of learners, the demands of the global knowledge economy and the shock of the economic crisis. The storm warnings of change are everywhere.

Universities are facing a perfect storm. We have a new Web, a new generation of learners, the demands of the global knowledge economy and the shock of the economic crisis. The storm warnings of change are everywhere. In 1998, none other than Peter Drucker predicted that big universities would be “relics” within 30 years. Today, Drucker’s seemingly hyperbolic and apocryphal predictions seem less shrill and even prescient.

Some universities and some faculty are more vulnerable than others. The great liberal arts colleges are doing a wonderful job of stimulating young minds because they have big endowments and small class sizes. They give students a more customized collaborative experience. If you’re fortunate enough to get into Amherst College, Williams or Swarthmore you’re in good hands. But the same cannot be said of many of the big universities that regard their prime role to be a centre for research. For them teaching almost seems to be an inconvenient afterthought. Class sizes are so large that the only way to “teach” is through lectures.

As the model of pedagogy is challenged, inevitably the revenue model of universities will be too. What happens when all that the large research universities have to offer to students are lectures that students can get online for free from other professors? Why should those students pay the tuition fees, especially if third-party testers will provide certificates, diplomas, and even degrees? If institutions want to survive the arrival of free, university-level education online, they need to change the way professors and students interact on campus.

Victor: You depict a subtopic, learning, in one chart from Paradigm Shift that you recently blogged about, showing that learning has moved from a closed to open hierarchy, and while it was about specific skills – it is then shifting to – broader competencies. Is this still true? 

from Paradigm Shift McGraw-Hill 1992Don: Yes, with a twist. Knowledge by definition is specialized, and we each need to have deep knowledge in specific areas, but we also need broader competencies. In Paradigm Shift I wrote that we need to be able to put things in context and understand the relationship amongst different matters. The idea that context and not content is king is still valid.

Over the years and most recently in Macrowikinomics I’ve discussed the failings of the current model of pedagogy, in which the teacher is essentially a broadcaster. The educator transmits information to an inert audience in a one-way, linear fashion. In today’s world, and for today’s students, this model of learning is anachronistic, if not obsolete. Yesterday you graduated and you were set for life – only needing to “keep up” a bit with ongoing developments in your chosen field. Today when you graduate you’re set for, say, 15 minutes. If you took a technical course in the first year of studies half of what you learned may be obsolete by your fourth year. Of course you still need a knowledge

Yesterday you graduated and you were set for life – only needing to “keep up” a bit with ongoing developments in your chosen field. Today when you graduate you’re set for, say, 15 minutes.

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, analyse, synthesise, contextualise and critically evaluate; to apply research to solving problems; to collaborate and communicate. This is particularly important for students and employers who compete in a global economy. Labour markets are now global and given networked business models, knowledge workers face competition in real time. Workers and managers must learn, adapt and perform like never before.

Victor: In 2000 it was Growing Up Digital, in 2008 Grown Up Digital, will there be a ‘Matured Digital’ in 2016? Thoughts and comments? 

another tapscott book?Don: Well, I’m pretty sure there won’t be a book, but who knows? By 2016 the eldest of the Net Generation will be 38 years old. As you know, I believe their access to technology as they’ve grown has shaped how they think, work, learn and behave. This generation is beginning to dominate many aspects of business in society. But I’m super-interested in the generation born after the Net Generation, i.e., those born after 1997. They are true digital natives who have grown up in a much more collaborative and interactive world than their Net Generation elders. They will be a force to behold.

Victor: It’s been more than 5 years now since 2008 – how is the ‘Net Generation’ doing, in your estimation? Where are they in terms of the recent edtech startup boom? 

Don: In some respects it is very bleak. Youth unemployment is at horrific levels in countries around the world. We told young people that if they worked hard at school and stayed out of trouble that they would be rewarded with a good job and a fulfilling life. It is not working out this way and it’s the fault of the ruling Baby Boomer generation. We have betrayed our kids and grandkids on a host of issues, such as global warming and our failure to develop healthy and sustainable economies.

On the plus side, a lot of young people have becoming entrepreneurs, necessity being the mother of invention. Fortunately, it is less costly than ever to create a company. Thanks to the Internet, little companies can now have all the capabilities of big companies, without the main liabilities: stifling bureaucracy, legacy culture and processes. Talent can be outside enterprise boundaries and companies can use the new media to market and engage stakeholders in radically new, low-cost ways.

Those who do have jobs are having a big disruptive impact and that is a good thing. As the head of any learning institution will tell you, it is the younger educators who are willing and keen to use technology to improve the education experience. They want to flip classrooms and change the relationship between the students and educators from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. I am sorry to say that it is almost always my generation that fights change. They mostly want to stick with chalk on blackboard or a PowerPoint presentation.

Victor: You travel the world speaking with heads of state, visiting various institutions. Could you provide our readers with some colorful anecdotes representative of the state of educational transformation in light of technology today? 

Don: At Davos earlier this year the presidents of MIT, Stanford and Harvard discussed on a panel whether universities would survive and if so in what form. Some of the audience suggested there will be perhaps ten universities left once the digital revolution’s impact is fully felt. There will be more young people studying university courses in MOOCs in five years than all the bricks-and-mortar universities combined. Clayton Christensen said recently in the New York Times that the bottom 25 percent of colleges and universities will disappear or merge in the next 10 to 15 years.

Victor: Any words of wisdom or guidance for, let’s say, a 7th grader these days? 

Don: Work hard, do well in school, have a balanced life, get out, play sports, have fun and be a good family member.

Victor: Words of wisdom for education leaders? 

Don: If you’re 55 or less and planning to work to age 65, you will preside over the complete transformation of education as we know it. Will you be a leader or will you fight it?

If you’re 55 or less and planning to work to age 65, you will preside over the complete transformation of education as we know it. Will you be a leader or will you fight it?

Victor: Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning technology’s role in education, or anything else for that matter? 

Don: Look at the edtech company Desire2Learn. You interviewed the company’s CEO, John Baker, just a few weeks ago. One of the great features of his company’s technology is that it can give educators early and clear metrics about each learner’s progress, even in a class of hundreds of students. This means an educator can intervene with a struggling student while there is still time to get the student back on the right path. This is the sort of innovation we need if we are to reduce the depressingly high percentage of students who drop or fail courses.

Educators must embrace the notion that the current model of pedagogy is obsolete. As I mentioned earlier, today’s industrial model of student mass production has the teacher as the broadcaster. This may have worked for the past four centuries, but it fails woefully to meet the needs for today’s students who are entering the global knowledge economy.

For sure, the model of collaborative learning existed before the Internet. For many years some learning institutions offered small seminars where students learned by discussing topics in the subject being studied. The educator was less the fountain of knowledge and more the moderator. Such seminars were effective, but they were rare and only offered to advanced students.

With technology, it is now possible to embrace new collaboration models that emulate the nature of the small seminar and capture its benefits. The technology gives educators opportunities to develop a deeper and richer relationship with their students. Such opportunities should be welcomed and seized.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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