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Technology, the knowledge economy and how academia should respond

September 17, 2011

Computer with networked attachmentsWe need not look far for examples of the massive change the Internet has brought upon us. Take the music industry for example. Like water finding the path of least resistance people started to find ways to create and exchange copies of songs for free. There has been much speculation as to why this occurred. Some say it is because no one wanted to buy a whole album when they only wanted one song. It became simple to share music, one song at a time, online. Peer to peer file sharing ensured no one would be required to store songs on their server and risk getting caught providing copyright material for free.

Why wouldn’t the record companies sell new material online? Did they just not “get it”? Some bands began to sell their songs online or provide them for free. Others found innovate, “pay what you think it is worth” business models. Music fans will always buy music. Just make it available in a convenient and fairly priced format. Same goes for the film industry. People didn’t even wait for the film to be released in a digitized format before they were recording it in the theatre and distributing these versions online (in some ways this is similar to bootleg concert recordings). Now this industry is suffering. But it has learned from the mistakes of others and now offers other channels of delivery. Soon films released in the theatre will also be available for viewing online at the same time.

Another medium experiencing great threat from the Internet is journalism. They also ignored the signs. People wanted their news in an online format. They wanted to be able to provide comments instantly by posted their opinion at the web page below the story. Who would write a letter to the editor using paper, an envelope and stamp when you can instantly post online? Print subscriptions to newspapers have plummeted. Some say this is because the news is outdated once it arrives. Others prefer to save on costs and view it for free online. Other threats also arose. Bloggers, some of whom write about events experienced in person and others who share their own opinions have become a serious threat to credentialed journalists from well respected newspapers and magazines. Suddenly the monopoly these industries had on what, when, how and by whom news was reported became threatened.

Then HIN1 happened and some very smart journalists at The Guardian UK learned it was much better to create the story then just sit back and report it. They found data about the reported incident rates at the Center for Disease (CDC) web site. They took that information and put it into a Google Docs spreadsheet. Using the Google Maps API they did a bit of programming to connect the location from the outbreak data to the map. This created an interactive rendering of where the current outbreaks of the pandemic were in real time. This incredibly useful and informative tool goes beyond writing a story that H1N1 is spreading. It provided us with up to date information professionals and laypersons could use in an easy to access format with complete transparency of how the information was developed. This field is now called data journalism.

In the future all workers will need to adapt and change their job on the fly in this fashion. It is no longer about learning how to do a task or set of tasks – it is about learning to identify what the task is then adapt, acquire or even create the skills to complete task. This is the knowledge economy.

Teacher with brief case and light bulb for head

 Many of those already in the work force won’t have the skills to work in this type of environment. They want to stick with what they know, what they were taught and have been doing for years. They don’t want to learn anything new. In part the academic system in which they were schooled is to blame. The emphasis on memorization and testing of rote knowledge is out of date. What can we do now to change this for the next generation?

The first think we need to acknowledge is that it is no longer about memorizing. Information is freely available online. What is the point having the student memorize the periodic table when they can just look it up online? I know what you’re thinking, “I had to long how to add, subtract, multiple and divide and there’s no way my kid is going to get away with using a calculator”. Yes, it is important to understand the theoretical underpinnings of a concept. But we need to shift our emphasis. We need to focus more on creating academic environments that foster ways to combine collective knowledge into new forms of intelligence. And we need to do this at a younger age. It is about the co-creation of new knowledge not the memorization of old. And the sooner we make these adjustments the better off we will be. In a global economy our future depends on it.

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