Big Ideas (in a shrinking world)

"The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village"

- Marshall McLuhan

    Marshall McLuhan originated the now popular phrase "global village" in the early 1960s. In the 1990s the popular perception that "the world is becoming a smaller place" has been pressed upon our consciousness through advances in transportation, telecommunication and information technologies.

    I work in the field of higher education. Recently I was asked to speculate on the changes which might be expected in our institution over the next 10 years. As I began to think of specific trends and changes, I began to ask myself the question - why? Why these specific changes? What are some of the underlying principles driving the trends and changes which we observe?

The Acceleration of Change, Flexibility and Rapid Response

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn".

- Alvin Toffler

    As labour pains progressively increase in magnitude and frequency, so it is with change in modern life. In 1970 Alvin Toffler published his best-selling book "Future Shock". Future shock was a phrase coined to describe the disorienting effect of accelerated change analogous to the experience of culture shock.

To meet the challenges of accelerated change, organisations will need to increase flexibility and maximise their ability to respond rapidly to new opportunities and threats. Some specific trends might be:

  • Everything on-line - As much of an organisation's information as possible should be placed "on-line". The extent to which this may be accomplished decreases the organisation's dependence on geographical location. It also allows an organisational presence to be quickly placed elsewhere at short notice. A good example was the extension of MILNET (the U.S. military internet) to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. This was accomplished by 2 staff members via a satellite link in a matter of hours.

    Once organisational data is in a digital form, its supplementation and transformation may be automated allowing flexibility and rapid response to change. The recent interest in "intranet" solutions is a good example of this idea.
  • Secondment, home working and "hot desks" - fewer and fewer people are working in the discipline which they originally trained for. This will only increasingly become the case as the pace of change accelerates. However, some organisational staffing policies do not reflect the current and emerging realities in this regard. Changes in technology (specifically telecommunications) have enabled working environments not previously possible. Home working, hot desks, and telecottages are all developments which have been made possible through new technologies.

Non-linear Nature of 21st Century Life

"The world that we have made as a result of the level of thinking that we have done so far has created problems we cannot solve at the level of thinking at  which we created them".

- Albert Einstein

    Not so many years ago, each child born could expect to live their lives in virtually the same manner as their parents in terms of lifestyle and career.

    Now every child born may expect to experience many changes in both of these areas at an accelerating pace. Not long ago, a typical linear educational and career progression may have been characterised as Primary School - Secondary School - Further or Higher Education - Job for Life.

    To the ever increasing magnitude and frequency of change, the non-linear nature of modern life adds another dimension. Some specific trends might be:

  • Lifelong learning - most organisations will want to increase in-service training and education. Already, some professions require annual participation in further training. Increasingly, more registered and chartered professions will require this. Students will want to "top up" existing qualifications. New skill areas will appear which did not previously exist.
  • Distance Learning - Technologies like videoconferencing, the World Wide Web, electronic mail, Internet tools, Satellite and Terrestrial Television and VCRs, are enabling outreach to rural areas and access across intranational and international borders. Homes, workplaces and community centres are to be included providing ubiquitous educational opportunities.
  • Student choice and scalability - learners will require a multiplicity of educational access points. The ability to incrementally improve their skills while retaining geographical flexibility and working toward certification. 
  • Modularisation, Credit Accumulation and Transfer- increased modularisation assists transfer between courses. Transfer of credit across institutions should be well defined. All of this requires networked management systems. A primary conduit for this activity will be computer networks.

Reusability and Stepwise Refinement

"Pop Will Eat Itself"

- Name of a music group

    One of the best examples of this principle is found in popular music. Songs are written, performed and recorded. If the song is perceived to have value, it will be re-recorded, perhaps many times with varying arrangements and tempo. Different "mixes" of the song may be simultaneously available even by the same artist. "Samples" of the original song may be incorporated in a new composite song.

    Recently, I was trying to find the words for an American folk song which I knew as "The Streets of Laredo" (or "The Dying Cowboy"). When I finally found the words, I was interested to read a brief history of the song. The music for "The Streets of Laredo" started life in Ireland and moved across the Atlantic to the eastern coast of America. Words were added recounting the story of a dying sailor. The song moved west, and the words changed to recount the story of a dying cowboy. I suppose the most recent journey has been back again to me in Ireland.

    This has been happening in all media for some time ("You've read the book, now see the movie", "been there, done that, bought the T-shirt"). Technological developments are enabling the process to be accelerated and further diversified.

    Educational institutions can and should employ these principles to their own benefit. Some specific suggestions are;

  • Pooling and reiteration of publications and teaching materials. For example, the University of Ulster have been using videoconferencing in teaching since 1990. Over the years, reports and papers have been published on our use of videoconferencing. By mounting these efforts on-line we make resources (photographs, charts, links, etc.) available which may be re-used. Hopefully, with successive iterations, the information provided in emerging publications should take the best of these resources combined with further research and experience for a richer result. Another example is this paper itself. The main concepts were developed for an informal group, then expanded and "test driven" at an Internet seminar for business professionals, and have been further expanded in this paper. Likewise, "re-inventing the wheel" for course materials simply does not make sense. Once material is digitised, its reuse restructuring and reorganisation are more easily accomplished.
  • Modularisation of information means that materials may be tailored as appropriate for different groups.

Synergy Through Collaboration

"You will have to compete and co-operate at the same time"

- Ray Noorda

    The term "co-opetition" was coined by Ray Noorda, founder of networking software company Novell to describe a process where participants both compete and co-operate at the same time.

    I was recently surprised to find out how this idea of co-opetition is becoming formalised. Two academics (one from Harvard Business School and the other from the Yale School of Management) have written a book entitled "Co-opetition" which is based on game theory.

    Synergy is where the contributions of multiple participants provide a result greater than a sum of the parts.

    Some of the ways we might collaborate could be;

  • Co-operation between educational institutions. For example, further and higher educational institutions can collaborate on a whole range of activities including module and programme franchises, integrated bidirectional entry points for courses and coupling course design for regularised intake ("feeder courses").
  • Co-operation with industry. Because many learners are also workers, industrial collaboration is highly desirable. Additional benefits of increased industrial collaboration might be;
    • higher profile for the programme
    • prestige of co-identification
    • benefits of association in attracting learners
    • built-in student pool from partner workforce
    • bidirectional technology and knowledge transfer
    • possibility of attracting additional funding
  • Co-operation across borders. This is probably even more meaningful here on the island of Ireland than in other locations. If the world is indeed conceptually becoming a smaller place through transportation, telecommunication and information technologies, then geographical distance becomes less of a hindrance to international collaboration.

    Co-operation - that is a nice (big) idea to be able to finish on.

  • The Acceleration of Change, Flexibility and Rapid Response
  • Non-linear Nature of 21st Century Life
  • Reusability and Stepwise Refinement
  • Synergy Through Collaboration

    Big ideas in a shrinking world!

    Ted Leath, University of Ulster, September 1996

Originally prepared to accompany workshop -
"Big Ideas (in a shrinking world)"
European Lifelong Learning and the Information Society Conference
Access Through Technology
UCD, Dublin, September 11th, 1996