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Friday, July 23, 2021

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The Knowledge Point

Does higher education teach students how to learn for life?
By Coleen L. Geraghty
 

Does higher education teach students how to learn for life?

Samantha Spilka came to San Diego State in 2003 with a simple objective – to prepare for a career in psychology.

On the way to her goal, Spilka learned a lot about learning. She realized that education is more than mastering the information and skills necessary for a job. It’s a never-ending process of acquiring new knowledge from an almost infinite pool of resources.

The average American changes careers three times before retirement. This musical chairs approach to employment means that what you know at age 20 may be irrelevant – or at the very least insufficient – by age 40.

In a world of rapid change and relentless technological advances, the most valuable skill college students can learn is a fail-safe recipe for extracting the knowledge they need from the rich stew of facts, ideas, opinions and experience they are served in a lifetime.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write,” predicted futurist Alvin Toffler, “but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Beyond the workplace

American higher education, for decades a global paradigm, is looking over its shoulder. Last year, a panel convened by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings concluded that this country’s past achievements in education “have led to unwarranted complacency about (the) future.”

The commission warned that America is conceding economic supremacy to nations more capable of producing highly creative, technologically dexterous and intellectually nimble citizens, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“Ironically, we have an incredible need for flexible and creative thinkers, but there is pressure in this country to create a more homogeneous curriculum,” said Geoffrey Chase, SDSU’s dean of Undergraduate Studies.

Within the California State University (CSU) system, visiting senior scholar Tom Carey is no fan of homogeneity. Carey leads a CSU group charged with using information technology to redesign instructional approaches at the college level.

He speaks with quiet intensity about the need to educate “knowledge workers,” who continually mine, massage and mobilize knowledge in their lives and in the workplace.

Though they may sound slightly Orwellian, Carey’s knowledge workers are, in fact, the antithesis of the mindless laborer. They are people who move beyond standard practice to create new knowledge and bring an innovative, collaborative style to the workplace.

At the university level, faculty who exemplify this new approach to learning can do more than teach course content. They can also demonstrate the mental gymnastics of sifting through knowledge to develop engaging lesson plans.

“What research did I use for my teaching? What knowledge did I apply? What ideas did I discard? Students can cope with the 21st century technologies of access,” Carey said. “We have to help them develop the 21st century knowledge skills of judgment and reflection.”

Finding global solutions

If, within 10 or 20 years, U.S. higher education were to shift its focus and produce true knowledge workers, would the U.S. be better equipped to compete in the 21st century?

Not necessarily, according to Ralph Wolff, president and executive director of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accrediting commission for senior colleges and universities.

Creating new knowledge to solve 21st century problems will also require a deep understanding of two social dynamics – cultural diversity and global interdependence.

“We know that no college graduate today is going to live an entire life in their home town,” Wolff said. “It
is vital for students in this century to be aware of cultural diversity and the impact of internationalization.”

Today’s multi-dimensional issues like poverty, immigra-tion and global warming demand a broad perspective that transcends rugged individualism. Often, the best solutions leverage a blend of cultural approaches, Wolff said.

Institutions of higher education – San Diego State University among them – take part in the global conversation by developing internationally focused curricula, welcoming a diverse campus population and encouraging students to study abroad.

Technology as enabler

More than any other single factor, technology has enabled students and educators to think globally. Online classes allow students from thousands of miles away to interact with SDSU faculty in a virtual environment. Eventually, many come to campus to complete their degrees.

Technology also sustains what Allison Rossett calls a “lifelong learning environment” by cultivating ongoing conversations between instructors and students, trainers and trainees, experts and learners – at every stage of life.

“The place where learning and technology come together is creating all kinds of opportunities,” said Rossett, SDSU professor of educational technology and a guru in the field of online workforce development.

“Isn’t education more meaningful when you can access online discussions, find an e-coach, locate knowledge bases like wikis and blogs? Learning happens when you mess with new information to make it your own.”

In geology Professor Eric Frost’s Visualization Center on the SDSU campus, students mess with an array of technology – from tools that enable real-time processing of satellite imagery to imaging technology that “sees through” a Leonardo da Vinci painting to reveal the original sketches beneath the paint.

Frost’s students use technology to help them shape the future rather than be shaped by it. Like Tom Carey’s knowledge workers, they mobilize information to create new ways of learning and of changing their world.

Call it the knowledge point – where learning becomes insight and connects with real-life experience. For
higher education, it’s still a goal. For today’s learners, it’s a necessity.