Rapid Doubling of Knowledge Drives Change in How We Learn

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Classrooms were developed in Prussia in the 1770s as a new technology for dissemination of information that the state wanted students to know. Its purpose was to efficiently deliver a standardized curriculum to as many young people as possible, and in the 19th century, universal compulsory education at the elementary grades was available in most countries in Europe and North America. The classroom model for training was picked up by corporations after World War II, culminating in the rise of “corporate universities” in the 1980s and 90s, and workshops led by experts at industry conferences. Before 1945, on-the-job training and “vestibule training” were dominant forms of teaching workers the skills they needed to operate in factories or service industries.

But the classroom/workshop model is under enormous pressure to change, as more and more people learn “just in time”, and often just enough to solve a problem or get a job completed. Here’s why.

In 1982, futurist and inventor Buckminster Fuller estimated how long it took for all accumulated and transmitted knowledge up until the year One CE to double in size. His estimate was about 1500 years, followed by another doubling after only 250 years, to about 1750. By 1900, only 150 years later, the amount of knowledge, in Fuller’s estimate, had doubled again. Clearly, on an exponential trajectory, the process of doubling the accumulated knowledge in the world was estimated to be between one and two years at the beginning of the 21st century. Now, 17 years later, the doubling of knowledge is every 12 hours.

This startling fact alone illustrates why trainers and experts can no longer be the main sources of knowledge about the world of work but need new forms of technology to help find and manage the deluge of information that is now available. No single person, no matter how brilliant, is going to be able to store a significant fraction of available knowledge in their heads, even in one field of study. This means that the roles of trainers and consultants need to change – from mostly presenters of information to guides, curators, problem solvers, and instructors in 21st-century digital learning skills and literacies. What are these skills and literacies? According to Maha Bali, “Digital skills focus on what and how. Digital literacy focuses on why, when, who and for whom.”

One person who has studied this topic deeply is Dr. Doug Belshaw, a UK-based researcher, and consultant who wrote his Doctor of Education dissertation on this topic. While his focus was on learners in the school system and higher education, his work can be applied to adults who need to change to meet the technology challenges of today. Doug’s list of the elements of “digital literacies” are nicely summarized in this blog post by W. Ian O’Byrne:

Cultural: Requires technology use in different contexts and awareness of the values and practices specific to varying contexts

Cognitive: Enables mastery of the use of technological tools, software, and platforms

Constructive: Requires reusing and remixing existing resources depending on need, or possibly adopting them into new resources

Communicative: Requires awareness of different communication devices that are both digital and mobile

Confidence: Places emphasis on gaining competence with digital technologies and the ability to create an environment for practicing skills and self-learning

Creative: Creates new data in digital environments while taking risks, developing skills, and producing new things

Critical: Requires the digital learner to develop various perspectives while actively taking different circumstances into account

Civic: Develops and helps acquire the concepts of democracy and global citizenship as individuals become participants in society

Most of all, those of us in the learning and development industry need to step up our game, becoming faster at learning ourselves, and versatile in the use of new learning tools. We should NOT be trying to cram knowledge into our heads (or the heads of others) for its own sake, or just in case we need it later. Instead, the world is moving to rapid “micro-learning”, the retrieval of small amounts of information as it is needed. At Float, we develop tools for micro-learning and are starting several pilot projects with these tools. Contact us if this new approach to learning will meet your training needs.

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Gary Woodill is a senior analyst with Float, as well as CEO of i5 Research. Gary conducts research and market analyses, as well as assessments and forecasting for emerging technologies. Gary is the co-editor of "Mastering Mobile Learning," author of “The Mobile Learning Edge,” and the co-author of “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds.” He also presents at conferences and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. Gary holds a doctor of education degree from the University of Toronto.

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On January 23, 2018
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