Schools are an almost exact model of Production Line Factories of the Industrial Age. My thoughts before World Economic Forum Knowledge Advisory Group Winter Meeting.

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Tomorrow am attending the World Economic Forum Knowledge Advisory Group Winter Meeting which is a meeting of universities from around the world. One of the main topics will be the “tsunami” or revolution which is going to come to universities by the effect of internet.

Here is an excerpt from the invitation letter, where you can see the main agenda of the meeting:

The meeting brings together senior administrators and experts in higher education and research under the auspices of the Forum’s Knowledge AdvisoryGroup, a network of senior representatives from leading universities from around the world, and offers a unique opportunity to share insights and opinions on key topics on the higher education agenda.

In our previous meeting in New York, the group focused on the online ‘tsunami’, as coined by Stanford University President John Hennessy. The meeting’s takeaways are best summarized in a Forum blog post at:

In Tokyo, the meeting will continue to discuss this topic, with a particular focus on the implications in Asia. We will also consider the most pressing challenges for the research agenda in the region and beyond.

Before the meeting I have been thinking about the topic of the revolution that will come to schools and universities from the effect of internet. My main thoughts now is that although we have entered the 21st internet and global age, schools are still stuck in the 20th century industrial age. The disconnect between schools and reality is becoming wider and wider until I think we will have total disruption.

I have been thinking lately that systems we develop in our society are a product of the “zeitgeist” or spirit of our age. Also human societies are so complex and interrelated so there are many feedback effects so it is hard to disentangle why systems develop in the way they are. However I think if one takes a step back and looks at schools, one would see a clear relation to the production line and factories invented in the industrial age.

The production line system which came of age in the 19th and 20th centuries is nearly an exact  model of schools. The production line is a linear process, each worker must work at the same pace of the the production process. The worker must repeat repetitively a task. Workers were often prohibited from speaking.

Our current school system is eerily similar. Students move along a linear system of years and semesters and subjects. Every student must study at the same pace. Every student will be graded and given exams at the same time and date. If you are very good at maths, then you
will be bored. If you are bad at maths, you will get bad grades. No matter, everyone must move linearly in the production line system. You must repeatedly repeat the same task so you can pass the exam. You are also not allowed to talk in class. You must sit passively and listen
to the teacher transferring information to you at the set speed, the production line speed.

When one thinks deeply about the matter from a meta-viewpoint, it is not surprising that schools are modeled on the production line. Society (government, industry) needed workers who would be manpower for the factories of the industrial age. So they set up systems to make and
mold workers to be successful industrial manpower.

Now, it is clear to me that this model is archaic and totally unsuited for our age: the age of knowledge work and internet society. Firstly, now we do not need factory workers. We cannot compete by making things in factories in the global society. We can only compete in high value
added sectors such as new inventions, new services, creative industries. We do not need industrial age workers, we need entrepreneurs, inventors, creative business people, etc. Secondly the internet age allows us to free education from the linear model. Now we
have all the tools and all the ability to learn at our own pace. In fact we can go back to education how it was before the industrial age, for example the apprentice system. Each person keeps working on something until she masters it. For example you need not do a maths exam on multiplication on a certain day with the whole class. You can do mini tests continuously on-line. When you have mastered a topic, you move on to the next in your own pace.

21st century society requires creative knowledge workers, and internet society allows everyone to learn at their own pace. Therefore it is imperative to abolish the linear production line model we have at schools currently. The problem is inertia and conservatism of education “industry”. However just like every other industry, the internet will disrupt and bring revolution. Whatever can be done on line will be done on line.

My personal viewpoint is that all information transfer (classes, lectures), which make no sense in the age of internet, will go on line. Students can view lectures and videos at their own pace, and be evaluated interactively. Students will be much happier because they can study in their own pace and own style and test themselves to their limit (as a side-line, this is how video games are also played, so games are a good model for learning). In the classroom, we will flip the model. Homework will be done at school and universities. The physical time will be about solving problems, doing projects, learning by making and doing, and working in teams with other students and teachers.

Learning and knowledge production will be done at the same time, an this is much more suited to the 21st century where technology and society changes exponentially. We need to learn much more about tacit knowledge, rather than explicit knowledge, in such an era as we are in now. Apart from the basics, explicit knowledge becomes rapidly out of date when technology is changing at an exponentially increasing pace. As Polanyi correctly stated, most of our knowledge is in fact implicit, and in the 21st century this becomes critical. Learning by doing, and in teams becomes the important mode of knowledge in 21st century.