Education in an exponentially changing world

By Dean Outerson

If you think about it, schools haven’t changed much. My experience with school was basically the same as my parents’ experience and even my grandparents’ experience. The education model that continues to survive well into the 21st century was conceived in the 19th century – it was inspired by the industrial revolution and the production line concept of teaching, at a time when information was difficult to obtain.

Today, we have a completely different situation – information is everywhere. Accessing even the most complex information in various formats is just a click or two away. So the need to cram information into the heads of groups of students assembled in a single room together is no longer necessary.

Every other industry is facing dramatic disruptions because of technology and new communications tools. And with artificial intelligence (AI) becoming more and more mainstream in its application, the world will see even more exponential change.

Because of these sweeping changes, careers are shifting and being reshaped to meet the new needs of the modern marketplace. People are changing jobs more often and remaking themselves in each new venture. The days of having a job for life are long gone.

In a rapidly changing world, memorizing facts across a wide range of subjects is not a necessary skill. The traditional “just-in-case” learning model – teaching a fixed body of knowledge and concepts with the promise that it might be useful to the student someday – no longer fits the needs of the digital generation.

Knowing how to frame questions, find information, make connections between different concepts, and constantly learn new skills is the key to success in the new world of work.

In order to prepare students for this new world, business schools and universities need to adopt a new paradigm of teaching and learning: “just-in-time” learning. Developed for physics instructors in the late 1990’s, it’s a format that uses class time for more active learning. It allows students to learn through a combination of web-based learning materials and interactive classroom activities.

Traditional lecture rooms must be replaced by configurable, interactive spaces for hands-on learning activities. As students themselves have become more active co-producers of knowledge and learning in recent years, they’ve realized the importance of relevance: applied knowledge, in the learner’s domain, that leads to transformative action learning.

The “just-in-time” model has already swept through many industries: music (think Spotify), movies (think Netflix), and production (all of the online freelance websites). In education, it means that customized training and learning will be available on demand, whenever, and wherever it’s needed. And it can be applied to traditional business schools, to corporate training, and to personal development (note the success of sites like Coursera, edX, and Udemy).

As other industries continue to innovate and evolve, the education industry must also recognize the changing needs of its customers (students), and fully embrace the “just-in-time” teaching-learning paradigm. All schools must radically alter their formats and their overall business model to prepare the next generations of digital natives for uncertain but challenging future careers.

As Yuval Noah Hariri says in his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, change will be the only constant: “To survive and flourish in such a world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. You will have to repeatedly let go of some of what you know best and feel at home with the unknown.”

“Just-in-time” learning is the best way to meet the needs of 21st-century students – it’s the future of education and learning.

(Dean Outerson is a CanCham board member & the Head of Marketing and Communications at the Sasin School of Management, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok).