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Higher education in an age of information deluge

October 24, 2015

When I was young, information was really scarce. I had no Internet and there were few books at home. What books there were came from salesmen; Readers Digest and Encyclopaedia Britannica. They were kept locked away in a glass-fronted cabinet to be read after bath, with clean hands, sitting at the dining room table. Books and the information they contained were precious. It was really hard for a curious young girl to find things out, and so one depended on the misinformation of young friends, confusing snippets of adult conversation, the limited world view of Girls Own annuals and the occasional newspaper. There was a small school library, but it was woefully inadequate for the questions that I wanted to ask.

So, for me, going to university was exciting because it opened up to me a world of knowledge. I still get a thrill when I walk into a library, at the thought of all that is contained within these volumes. I fantasise about spending weeks, perhaps when I retire, just going to a library and reading, browsing and reading. And then there are collections; of creatures, of rocks, of art and architectural delights. Universities for me are repositories of wonderful resources and artefacts where I can browse and be informed and delighted. They also bring me into contact with people who share my interests who I can discuss ideas with. Going to university meant access to knowledge, information, ideas and people to learn from and engage with.

Contrast this with my son, who owned his first computer at six and was online from around the age of nine. He had access to limitless information on any topic he chose from a very young age. Whatever he wanted to know, he had only to search. Granted the information was unfiltered, and much of it was poor, but he had years of practice in sorting out good information from bad. He had no need of collections because he could see the creatures online and in action, he could roam the art galleries of the world. He also had access to people to share ideas with. I can recall him coming to dinner to tell me about how people in Korea were different from people in America. He took an early interest in global politics.

For him, university was a great disappointment. He went to great trouble to craft a programme that covered his wide interests in pure science, applied science and the social sciences. But he found the curricula woefully limited, backward looking, and informed by a very narrow slice of information. He also found the people he encountered narrow minded and he left after a year. He calculated that the time spent on university would be wasted as he would be forced to learn to someone else’s agenda.

For me, the problem with information was getting my hands on it. For him the problem with information has always been how to filter the deluge so that time and mental focus gets spent on the really interesting and important stuff. This is a very different challenge. So where I think of the university as providing a cornucopia of knowledge that I can get excited by, he sees it as force-feeding him a pre-selected set of knowledge that he considers irrelevant to his current concerns. In doing so it takes up valuable time and mental energy that he could be spending on what he really wants to know.

This is why universities are not working. The people dishing up the knowledge think that they are offering something wonderful, but for those on the receiving end, this is just another information source that adds to the deluge they deal with daily. University has become a necessary nuisance that they are keen to get over with as little investment as needed, as soon as possible. It’s not that what is taught is not interesting; it’s just that in this information rich age, people have to filter ruthlessly in order to focus on the things that matter to them, so that they can learn what they want to learn at this point in time. Filtering out unnecessary information is a twenty-first century survival skill that works against education designed around being part of a “class” learning what someone else has decided is important.

We need to rethink what we are doing. There has to be a better way of designing higher education for an information rich age.

From → Higher Education

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