November 28, 2015

Online learning and a knowledge-based economy

Listen with webReader
Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Florida, R. and Spencer, G. (2015) Canada has two growth models, but we’ve been neglecting one Globe and Mail, Oct 7

Boyd, D. (2015) Canada’s party leaders neglecting renewable energy in election talks Globe and Mail, Oct 7

If you are not Canadian, please bear with me in this post, as although these articles focus on Canada, what I have to say will apply to many other economically advanced countries – and I will get to the online learning bit eventually.

The Canadian election

Three parties are running very close in the Canadian federal election, which takes place on October 19. All three parties (Conservatives, who form the current government; the NDP, the official opposition; and the Liberals), have made the economy a central plank of their campaign. In essence the election is being fought primarily on which party is best able to advance the Canadian economy.

Surprisingly though all three parties are very backward looking in their economic strategies. The Conservative government has based its economic strategy primarily around the resource-based industries of oil and mining extraction, and agriculture. It is also supporting free trade through free trade agreements with Europe (CETA) and 22 countries around the Pacific (TPP) as well as the 25 year old North American free trade agreement between Canada, the USA and Mexico (NAFTA), but still with high tariffs and protection for the Canadian dairy industry. Interestingly, there has been almost no discussion by the major Canadian political parties about the copyright and intellectual property agreements in these pacts, yet these have tremendous implications for developing home-grown innovative industries.

The Conservative economic strategy has recently run into severe problems due to a crash in commodity prices, and the oil industry in particular is in trouble due to excess capacity, low prices and increasing environmental and aboriginal land claim pressures that have resulted in difficulties in getting the oil to market.

The NDP, which has its roots in labour and the union movement, is pushing to support manufacturing industries, such as auto production. The Liberals are focusing on taxation and funding policies that are aimed at encouraging small businesses and protecting the current economy. The Liberals though have pledged a small increase (around ($100 million) to support incubators and new start-ups.

These are all very 20th century approaches to the economy, and frankly are not very different from one another at a strategic level. Where are the long-term strategies or plans that will support new knowledge-based industries?

The knowledge economy

Richard Florida, an urban economist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and Greg Spencer, a research associate, have pointed out in their article in the Globe and Mail that:

the real sources of sustained prosperity and rising living standards are knowledge, innovation and creativity. Canada has neglected the development of its knowledge-based economy….Cities are the central organizing unit on the knowledge economy, with knowledge and creativity concentrated in Canada’s largest city regions.’

Florida and Spencer then go on to define five key ‘pillars’ that are needed to build Canada’s knowledge economy:

  • increased urban density
  • a shift from investment in roads to an investment in transit and high-speed rail, to make communication quicker and easier
  • more compact and affordable housing in cities to encourage young knowledge-workers to come together
  • increasing the minimum wage and replacing low-wage service jobs with more creative approaches to service provision
  • increased taxing and spending powers to cities.

Noticeably they do not mention high quality post-secondary education.

Renewable energy

David Boyd, an environmental lawyer, in a separate article argues that Canada’s government to date has ignored the potential of renewable energy, focusing instead on trying to extract and move carbon-heavy oil, gas and coal, through pipelines and tankers. Instead, he argues, future economic growth will be driven by developments in renewable energy such as solar, wind and geo-thermal power. He argues that Canada has the potential to generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources within two decades.

Canada has an unenviable reputation as being a major emitter of greenhouse gases, particularly through its production of heavy crude and bitumen from the oil sands. It is increasingly clear that there will be an increasing charge on the production of such carbon, mainly through direct carbon taxes (as has been the case here in British Columbia for a number of years, with success in driving down carbon emissions) or indirect cap and trade schemes (which are coming in Ontario and Quebec). Even major investment funds are now looking at carbon-emitting industries as high risk investments for the future. As a result the Canadian oil industry must now find cleaner ways to extract and treat oil and petroleum.

Renewable and clean energy however depends on invention and innovation to develop economically efficient sources of energy. In other words, it needs a heavy investment in developing new knowledge that will drive the development of new, clean technologies.

The increasing demand for high level knowledge workers

Neither article in the Globe and Mail made the link to the need for high level knowledge workers to grow the knowledge economy. It is as if it is almost taken for granted that Canada’s universities and colleges will develop such workers. However, although Canadian institutions may train academic researchers, engineers, media designers and developers and entrepreneurial business people, they need to have the right skills to work effectively in a knowledge-based economy. We are talking about a highly competitive market here. All advanced developed countries want to be leaders in innovation. Will Canada produce the researchers, engineers and managers with the right skills for a knowledge-based economy? In particular will they develop people skilled in knowledge management, creativity, problem solving, design, entrepreneurialism, critical thinking, etc.?

Online learning and the knowledge economy

This is where online learning becomes critically important. In my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I focus specifically on the kind of skills that will be needed in a knowledge intensive economy, and demonstrate that online learning has a key role to play in developing such skills (although of course it is not the only way).

However, this is just one person’s contribution. Canada needs to focus much more on identifying the knowledge and skills that will be needed in knowledge intensive industries and ensure that our educational institutions know how to develop such skills. In particular are we using the appropriate teaching methods and technologies that will help learners develop these skills and knowledge?

Those countries that can harness new knowledge to clean and innovative industries will surely be the economic drivers of the future. I just wish that our political parties would pay more attention to developing strategies that support a knowledge-based economy, because the fate of Canada as a prosperous country with an enviable standard of living and quality of life absolutely depends on this.


Next steps for the European HE system

Listen with webReader
The University of Siena: founded in 1240, but is it still relevant today?

The University of Siena: founded in 1240, but is it still relevant today?

Klemenčič, M. and Ashwin, P. (2015) What’s next for Europe? Inside Higher Ed, May 26

As my holiday in Italy draws to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to do a short blog on developments in European higher education. I look to my many readers in Europe to comment and correct me as appropriate.

What the article is about

This is an interesting article about future policy for European Higher Education, following the Bologna Process Ministerial Conference on May 14-15 in Yerevan, Armenia. (Sigh! Yes, you are right, Armenia is not yet part of the European Union, but it is a member of the Council of Europe, and, since 2005 has been part of the Bologna Process, which sets out pan-European strategy for higher education.)

This article gives a pretty good overview of what the Bologna Process has achieved to date, and also what it has not achieved, and also gives a good description of where European education ministers want to go in the future, in terms of pan-European policy.

The achievements of the Bologna Process

The Bologna Process is:

a voluntary convergence and coordinated reform of higher education systems across the member countries of the European Union and beyond. The aims have been to promote the mobility of students and staff and to enhance the quality and international competitiveness of European higher education.

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) now has 48 members, including non-European Union countries such as the Russian Federation, Belarus, Armenia and the Ukraine.

Its successes include:

  • a common three-cycle degree structure across countries;
  • student mobility: students can transfer course credits acquired at one institution to any another institution in the EHEA;
  • European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance and the European Register of Quality Assurance Agencies, ensuring that all countries have compatible internal and external quality assurance procedures.

This of course raises the question: If the Europeans can enable students to transfer seamlessly between 4,000 higher education institutions across Europe and beyond (and they do, in droves), why is it so difficult to do this in Canada, and particularly within Ontario, for God’s sake?

One of the great scandals of Canadian higher education is the refusal of Ontario universities or the Ontario government to put in place any form of automatic transfer of credits. (Yeah, there are seven universities in Ontario that have a paper agreement amongst themselves, but the reality is that it is NOT an automatic process even between these seven institutions).

BC and Alberta have had a mutual transfer system in place for many years, but the only thing more difficult than moving from a university in BC (or from anywhere else in Canada) to a university in Ontario is taking a bottle of BC wine with you to Ontario (yes, that is actually illegal in Canada). Talk about provincialism.

The challenges of the Bologna Process

Like anything to do with the European Union, excessive bureaucracy is a major challenge. In particular, to quote from the article:

much of the energy of the Bologna Follow-Up Group, the governing body of the process, has been channeled into detailed questions about decision structures and processes. The Bologna Process needed a new sense of purpose to bring the governments together and re-energize international cooperation within the EHEA. And this indeed happened [at the Yerevan conference].

What’s driven this new sense of purpose is youth unemployment:

The unemployment rate for people 29 and younger in the European Union is 19 percent, the highest in at least 10 years. In Spain, the figure was 53 percent in November 2014; it was 49 percent, in Greece, followed closely by Croatia and Italy. Higher education is seen as one key pillar in Europe’s vision to fight unemployment among young people, preventing them from becoming a “lost generation” and source of social upheaval. The communiqué emphasizes the need to ensure that graduates possess competencies that will make them employable.

The article lists several ways this is to be done, such as:

  • a better dialogue between higher education institutions and employers,
  • a good balance between theoretical and practical components in curricula, and
  • continued support for international mobility for study and work placement.

The authors though acknowledge that:

higher education alone, of course, cannot solve the problem that is so clearly linked to economic growth and also labor regulations.

They might also have mentioned the failed economic policy of austerity, which is a major cause of youth unemployment in Europe.

A second objective is to make European higher education more inclusive. A particular concern is the low participation rate of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in European higher education, and the possible radicalization of immigrant youth:

three types of mobility are accentuated in the communiqué: for students and staff from conflict areas, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and mobility of teacher education students.

The third objective is to improve the quality of teaching and learning in universities and colleges. The authors note that it is surprising that it has taken so long for this to emerge as a priority for this first time at the Armenia conference:

..the quality of teaching and learning is far from satisfactory and varies significantly across European systems and institutions…the majority of countries do not have a strategy for the advancement of teaching and learning or specific structures to support it. At best, higher education institutions are developing their own units for supporting excellence in teaching and learning or funding teaching development programs. At worse, higher education teachers are left to their own devices to improve their teaching (or not) when alerted by the outcomes of student satisfaction surveys.

In Yerevan, the ministers have committed to support higher education institutions in pedagogical innovation, exploring the use of digital technologies for learning and teaching, and in better linking learning and teaching with research, innovation and entrepreneurship. You have to wonder though why it took almost 20 years to get these items on the agenda.

What next?

The authors of the article are surprisingly optimistic that these new policies will be successfully implemented by the governments of member states. However, by 2018, the set target gate for implementation, both Greece and Britain may well have left the European Union, and I will be surprised if countries such as Italy, the Ukraine and Bulgaria will have made much progress towards these objectives, because of structural and economic difficulties.

Nevertheless, on balance, despite the stifling bureaucracy of the European Union, and the political and economic challenges faced by many European countries, the Bologna Process has enabled many European universities to improve their standards and to modernise, and is likely to continue to do so into the future.

One of the University of Siena's student computer labs

One of the University of Siena’s student computer labs

Developing intellectual and practical skills in a digital age

Listen with webReader


Skills 2

The story so far

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ is about the design of teaching and learning, which I am currently writing and publishing as I go.

I started Chapter 5 by suggesting that instructors should think about design through the lens of constructing a comprehensive learning environment in which teaching and learning will take place. I have started to work through the various components of a learning environment, focusing particularly on how the digital age affects the way we need to look at some of these components.

I started by looking at how the characteristics of our learners are changing, and followed that by examining how our perspectives on content are being influenced by the digital age. In this post, I look at how both intellectual and practical skills can be developed to meet the needs of a digital age. The following posts will do the same for learner support, resources and assessment respectively.

This will then lead to a discussion of different models for designing teaching and learning. These models aim to provide a structure for and integration of these various components of a learning environment.

Scenario: Developing historical thinking

© Wenxue City: China During the Early Days of the Reform

© Wenxue City: China During the Early Days of the Reform

Ralph Goodyear is a professor of history in a public Tier 1 research university in the central United States. He has a class of 120 undergraduate students taking HIST 305, ‘Historiography’.

For the first three weeks of the course, Goodyear had recorded a series of short 15 minute video lectures that covered the following topics/content:

  • the various sources used by historians (e.g. earlier writings, empirical records including registries of birth, marriage and death, eye witness accounts, artifacts such as paintings, photographs, and physical evidence such as ruins.)
  • the themes around which historical analysis tend to be written,
  • some of the techniques used by historians, such as narrative, analysis and interpretation
  • three different positions or theories about history (objectivist, marxist, post modernist).

Students downloaded the videos according to a schedule suggested by Goodyear. Students attended two one hour classes a week, where specific topics covered in the videos were discussed. Students also had an online discussion forum in the course space on the university’s learning management system, where Goodyear had posted similar topics for discussion. Students were expected to make at least one substantive contribution to each online topic for which they received a grade that went towards their final grade.

Students also had to read a major textbook on historiography over this three week period.

In the fourth week, he divided the class into twelve groups of six, and asked each group to research the history of any city outside the United States over the last 50 years or so. They could use whatever sources they could find, including online sources such as newspaper reports, images, research publications, and so on, as well as the university’s own library collection. In writing their report, they had to do the following:

  • pick a particular theme that covered the 50 years and write a narrative based around the theme
  • identify the sources they finally used in their report, and discuss why they selected some sources and dismissed others
  • compare their approach to the three positions covered in the lectures
  • post their report in the form of an online e-portfolio in the course space on the university’s learning management system

They had five weeks to do this.

The last three weeks of the course were devoted to presentations by each of the groups, with comments, discussion and questions, both in class and online (the in class presentations were recorded and made available online). At the end of the course, students assigned grades to each of the other groups’ work. Goodyear took these student gradings into consideration, but reserved the right to adjust the grades, with an explanation of why he did the adjustment. Goodyear also gave each student an individual grade, based on both their group’s grade, and their personal contribution to the online and class discussions.

Goodyear commented that he was surprised and delighted at the quality of the students’ work. He said: ‘What I liked was that the students weren’t learning about history; they were doing it.’

Based on an actual case, but with some embellishments.

Skills in a digital age

In Chapter 1, Section 1.4, I listed some of the skills that graduates need in a digital age, and argued that this requires a greater focus on developing such skills, at all levels of education, but particularly at a post-secondary level, where the focus is often on specialised content. Although skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and creative thinking have always been valued in higher education, the identification and development of such skills is often implicit and almost accidental, as if students will somehow pick up these skills from observing faculty themselves demonstrating such skills or through some form of osmosis resulting from the study of content. I also pointed out in the same section, though, that there is substantial research on skills development but the knowledge deriving from such research is at best applied haphazardly, if at all, to the development of intellectual skills.

Furthermore the skills required in a digital age are broader and more wide ranging than the abstract academic skills traditionally developed in higher education. For instance, they need to be grounded just as much in digital communications media as in traditional writing or lecturing, and include the development of digital competence and expertise within a subject domain, as well as skills such as independent learning and knowledge management. These are not so much new skills as a different emphasis, focus or direction.

It is somewhat artificial to separate content from skills, because content is the fuel that drives the development of intellectual skills. At the same time, in more traditionally vocational training, we see the reverse trend in a digital age, with much more focus on developing high level conceptual thinking as well as manual skills development. My aim here is not to downplay the importance of content, but to ensure that skills development receives as much focus and attention from instructors, and that we approach intellectual skills development in the same rigorous and explicit way as apprentices are trained in manual skills.

Setting goals for skills development

Thus a critical step is to be explicit about what skills a particular course or program is trying to develop, and to define these goals in such a way that they can be implemented and assessed. In other words it is not enough to say that a course aims to develop critical thinking, but to state clearly what this would look like in the context of the particular course or content area, in ways that are clear to students. In particular the ‘skills’ goals should be capable of assessment and students should be aware of the criteria or rubrics that will be used for assessment.

Thinking activities

A skill is not binary, in the sense that you either have it or you don’t. There is a tendency to talk about skills and competencies in terms of novice, intermediate, expert, and master, but in reality skills require constant practice and application and there is, at least with regard to intellectual skills, no final destination. So it is critically important when designing a course or program to design activities that require students to develop, practice and apply thinking skills on a continuous basis, preferably in a way that starts with small steps and leads eventually to larger ones. There are many ways in which this can be done, such as written assignments, project work, and focused discussion, but these thinking activities need to be thought about, planned and implemented on a consistent basis by the instructor.

Practical activities

It is a given in vocational programs that students need lots of practical activities to develop their manual skills. This though is equally true for intellectual skills. Students need to be able to demonstrate where they are along the road to mastery, get feedback on it, and retry as a result. This means doing work that enables them to practice specific skills.

In the scenario above, students had to cover and understand the essential content in the first three weeks, do research in a group, develop an agreed project report, in the form of an e-portfolio, share it with other students and the instructor for comments, feedback and assessment, and present their report orally and online. Ideally, they will have the opportunity to carry over many of these skills into other courses where the skills can be further refined and developed. Thus, with skills development, a longer term horizon than a single course will be necessary, so integrated program as well as course planning is important.

Discussion as a tool for developing intellectual skills

Discussion is a very important tool for developing thinking skills. However, not any kind of discussion. It was argued in Chapter 2 that academic knowledge requires a different kind of thinking to everyday thinking. It usually requires students to see the world differently, in terms of underlying principles, abstractions and ideas. Thus discussion needs to be carefully managed by the instructor, so that it focuses on the development of skills in thinking that are integral to the area of study. This requires the instructor to plan, structure and support discussion within the class, keeping the discussions in focus, and providing opportunities to demonstrate how experts in the field approach topics under discussion, and comparing students’ efforts.

Figure 5.3: Online threaded discussion forums provide students with opportunities for developing intellectual skills, but the instructor needs to design and manage such forums carefully for this to happen

Figure 5.3: Online threaded discussion forums provide students with opportunities for developing intellectual skills, but the instructor needs to design and manage such forums carefully for this to happen

In conclusion

There are many opportunities in even the most academic courses to develop intellectual and practical skills that will carry over into work and life activities in a digital age, without corrupting the values or standards of academia. Even in vocational courses, students need opportunities to practice intellectual or conceptual skills such as problem-solving, communication skills, and collaborative learning. However, this won’t happen merely through the delivery of content. Instructors need to:

  • think carefully about exactly what skills their students need,
  • how this fits with the nature of the subject matter,
  • the kind of activities that will allow students to develop and improve their intellectual skills, and
  • how to give feedback and to assess those skills, within the time and resources available.

This is a very brief discussion of how and why skills development should be an integral part of any learning environment. We will be discussing skills and skill development in more depth in later chapters.

Over to you

Your views, comments and criticisms are always welcome. In particular:

  • how does the history scenario work for you? Does it demonstrate adequately the points I’m making about skills development?
  • are the skills being developed by students in the history scenario relevant to a digital age?
  • is this post likely to change the way you think about teaching your subject, or do you already cover skills development adequately? If you feel you do cover skills development well, does your approach differ from mine?

Love to hear from you.

Next up

Learner support in a digital age


Opening up: chapter one of Teaching in a Digital Age

Listen with webReader
The view when I was writing Chapter 1, from the Island of Braç, Croatia

The view when I was writing Chapter 1, from the Island of Braç, Croatia

I’ve not been blogging much recently, because (a) I’ve been on holiday for a month in the Mediterranean and (b) I’ve been writing my book.

Teaching in a Digital World

As you are probably aware, I’m doing this as an open textbook, which means learning to adapt to a new publishing environment. As well as writing a darned good book for instructors on teaching in in a digital age, my aim is to push the boundaries a little with open publishing, to move it out of the traditional publishing mode into a a truly open textbook, with the help of the good folks at BCcampus who are running their open textbook project.

You will see that there’s still a long way to go before we can really exploit all the virtues of openness in publishing, and I’m hoping you can help me – and BCcampus- along the way with this.

What I’d like you to do

What I’m hoping you will do is find the time to browse the content list and preface (which is not yet finalized) and read more carefully Chapter 1, Fundamental Change in Higher Education, then give me some feedback. To do this, just go to:

The first thing you will realise is that there is nowhere to comment on the published version. (Ideally I would like to have a comment section after every section of each chapter.) I will be publishing another post about some of the technical features I feel are still needed within PressBooks, but in the meantime, please use the comment page on this post (in which case your comment will be public), or use the e-mail facility  at the bottom of the chapter or preface (in which case your comment will be private). Send to .

What kind of feedback?

At this stage, I’m looking more for comments on the substance of the book, rather than the openness (my next post will deal with the technical issues). To help you with feedback, here are some of the questions I’m looking for answers to:

  1. Market: from what you’ve read so far, does there appear to be a need for this type of book? Are there other books that already do what I’m trying to do?
  2. Structure: does Chapter 1 have the right structure? Does it flow and is it logically organized?How could it be improved?
  3. Content: is there anything missing, dubious or just plain wrong? References that I have missed that support (or challenge) the content would also be useful.
  4. Do the activities work for you? Are there more interesting activities you can think of? How best to provide feedback? (e.g. does the use of ‘Parts’ work for this?)
  5. Presentation: are there other media/better images I could use? Is the balance between text and media right?

What’s in it for you?

First, I hope the content will be useful. Chapter 1 is probably the least useful of all the chapters to come for readers of this blog, because it’s aimed at instructors who are not comfortable with using technology, but if the material is useful to you, you are free to use it in whatever way you wish, within the constraints of a Creative Commons license.

Second, the whole point of open education is to share and collaborate. I’m opening up my book and the process; in return can I get some help and advice? In anticipation and with a degree of nervousness I look forward to your comments.

Are universities teaching the skills needed in a knowledge-based economy?

Listen with webReader

Knowledge worker 2

I’ve been on holiday the last two and a half weeks, but also doing some writing for my open textbook on teaching in a digital age.

Are universities teaching the skills needed in a knowledge-based economy?

This is one of the questions I have been asking myself, and there of course a couple of ways to respond to this:

1. Of course – we teach critical thinking, problem solving, research skills, and encourage original thinking: just the skills needed in today’s work force.

2. That’s not our job. Our job is the pure exploration of new knowledge and ideas and to pass that love of knowledge on to the next generation. If some of that rubs off in the commercial world, well and good, but that’s not our purpose.

I have a little bit of sympathy for the second answer. Universities provide society with a safe way of gambling on the future, by encouraging innovative research and development that may have no immediate apparent short-term benefits, or may lead to nowhere, without incurring major commercial or social loss. Another critical role is the ability to challenge the assumptions or positions of powerful agencies outside the university, such as government or industry, when these seem to be in conflict with evidence or ethical principles or the general good of society. There is a real danger in tying university and college programs too closely to immediate labour market needs. Labour market demand can shift very rapidly, and in particular, in a knowledge-based society, it is impossible to judge what kinds of work, business or trades will emerge in the future.

However the rapid expansion in higher education and the very large sums invested in higher education is largely driven by government, employers and parents wanting a work-force that is employable, competitive and if possible affluent. Indeed, this has always been one role for universities, which started as preparation and training for the church, law and much later, government administration.

So it’s the first response I want to examine more closely. Are the skills that universities claim to be developing (a) actually being done and (b) if they are being done, are they really the skills needed in a knowledge-based economy.

The characteristics of knowledge-based workers

To answer that question let’s attempt to identify the characteristics of knowledge-based workers. Here’s my view on this (somewhat supported by bodies such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the OECD – I’m searching for the actual references.)

  • they usually work in small companies (less than 10 people)
  • they sometimes own their own business, or are their own boss; sometimes they have created their own job, which didn’t exist until they worked out there was a need and they could meet that need
  • they often work on contract, so they move around from one job to another fairly frequently
  • the nature of their work tends to change over time, in response to market and technological developments and thus the knowledge base of their work tends to change rapidly
  • they are digitally smart or at least competent digitally; digital technology is often a key component of their work
  • because they often work for themselves or in small companies, they play many roles: marketer, designer, salesperson, accountant/business manager, technical support, for example
  • they depend heavily on informal social networks to bring in business and to keep up to date with current trends in their area of work
  • they need to keep on learning to stay on top in their work, and they need to manage that learning for themselves
  • above all, they need to be flexible, to adapt to rapidly changing conditions around them.

It can be seen then that it is difficult to predict with any accuracy what many graduates will actually be doing ten or so years after graduation, except in very broad terms. Even in areas where there are clear professional tracks, such as medicine, nursing or engineering, the knowledge base and even the working conditions are likely to undergo rapid change and transformation over that period of time. However, we shall see that it is possible to predict the skills they will need to survive and prosper in such an environment.

Content and skills

Knowledge involves two strongly inter-linked but different components: content and skills. Content includes facts, ideas, principles, evidence, and descriptions of processes or procedures.

The skills required in a knowledge society include the following (Conference Board of Canada, 1992):

  • communications skills: as well as the traditional communication skills of reading, speaking and writing coherently and clearly, we need to add social media communication skills. These might include the ability to create a short YouTube video to capture the demonstration of a process or to make a sales pitch, the ability to reach out through the Internet to a wide community of people with one’s ideas, to receive and incorporate feedback, to share information appropriately, and to identify trends and ideas from elsewhere;
  • the ability to learn independently: this means taking responsibility for working out what you need to know, and where to find that knowledge. This is an ongoing process in knowledge-based work, because the knowledge base is constantly changing. Incidentally I am not talking here necessarily of academic knowledge, although that too is changing; it could be learning about new equipment, new ways of doing things, or learning who are the people you need to know to get the job done;
  • ethics and responsibility: this is required to build trust (particularly important in informal social networks), but also because generally it is good business 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: although many knowledge workers work independently or in very small companies, they depend heavily on collaboration and the sharing of knowledge with others in related but independent organizations. In small companies, it is essential that all employees work closely together, share the same vision for a company and help each other out. 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;
  • thinking skills (critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, originality, strategizing): of all the skills needed in a knowledge-based society, these are some of  the most important. Businesses increasingly depend on the creation of new products, new services and new processes to keep down costs and increase competitiveness. Universities in particular have always prided themselves on teaching such intellectual skills, but we have seen that the increased move to larger classes and more information transmission, especially at the undergraduate level, challenges this assumption. Also, it is not just in the higher management positions that these skills are required. Trades people in particular are increasingly having to be problem-solvers rather than following standard processes, which tend to become automated. Anyone dealing with the public needs to be able to identify needs and find appropriate solutions;
  • digital skills: most knowledge-based activities depend heavily on the use of technology. However the key issue is that these skills need to be embedded within the knowledge domain in which the activity takes place. This means for instance real estate agents knowing how to use geographical information systems to identify sales trends and prices in different geographical locations, welders knowing how to use computers to control robots examining and repairing pipes, radiologists knowing how to use new technologies that ‘read’ and analyze MRI scans. Thus the use of digital technology needs to be integrated with and evaluated through the knowledge-base of the subject area;
  • knowledge management: this is perhaps the most over-arching of all the skills. 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 a 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.

Most faculty, at least in universities, are well trained in content and have a deep understanding of the subject areas in which they are teaching. Expertise in skills development though is another matter. The issue here is not so much that faculty do not help students develop skills – they do – but whether these intellectual skills match the needs of knowledge-based workers, and whether enough emphasis is given to skills development within the curriculum.

Embedding skills in the curriculum

We know a lot from research about skills and skill development (again, references to come):

  • skills development is relatively context-specific. In other words, these skills need to be embedded within a knowledge domain. For example, problem solving in medicine is different from problem-solving in business. Different processes and approaches are used to solve problems in these domains (for instance, medicine tends to be more deductive, business more intuitive; medicine is more risk averse, business is more likely to accept a solution that will contain a higher element of risk or uncertainty);
  • learners need practice – often a good deal of practice – to reach mastery and consistency in a particular skill;
  • skills are often best learned in relatively small steps, with steps increasing as mastery is approached;
  • learners need feedback on a regular basis to learn skills quickly and effectively; immediate feedback is usually better than late feedback;
  • although skills can be learned by trial and error without the intervention of a teacher, coach, or technology, skills development can be greatly enhanced with appropriate interventions, which means adopting appropriate teaching methods and technologies  for skills development.
  • although content can be transmitted equally effectively through a wide range of media, skills development is much more tied to specific teaching approaches and technologies.

What should we do?

So here are some questions to discuss at the next departmental meeting discussing curriculum:

  • what are the skills we are trying to develop in this program? Are they explicitly stated and communicated to students?
  • how well do they match the skills required by knowledge-based workers? Do we need to add or adapt  existing skills to make them more relevant? If so, would this have a negative or a positive effect on the academic integrity of the program and particularly on the choice of content?
  • what teaching methods are most likely to lead the development of such skills?
  • what opportunities should we provide for practice and feedback on the development of the skills we have chosen?
  • how do we assess such skills?

Your feedback requested

1. Have I covered the main skills needed in a knowledge-based society? What have I missed?

2. Do you agree that these are important skills? If so, should universities explicitly try to develop them?

3. What are you or your university doing (if anything) to ensure such skills are taught, and taught well?

4. What roles if any do you think technology, and in particular online learning, can play in helping to develop such skills?

5. Any other comments on this topic