The Age of Learning

go to critical reviews

If the 18th Century was the age of reason, the 19th a time when industry and business were center stage, and the 20th an epoch of science and technology, then the 21st Century will be the Age of Learning, a time when

This new epoch will be a time when learning becomes what farming was to an agrarian age. In an agricultural society, you farm or you do not eat; you farm all of your life; and nearly everything–economics, politics, culture–is organized around farming.

In the Age of Learning, you either learn or you do not work; you learn throughout your life; and the economy and society are increasingly organized around learning. The intrinsic value of being a learned person will be paralleled by significant economic and practical value. Colleges and universities could be at the center of this new age, being both a source of new knowledge and a principle distributor of that knowledge. Enrollments will nearly double over the next 15-17 years and the demand for what we offer could and, for some institutions, will be, global in scope. A new age of learning could well be near to hand.

What will be the characteristics of this new Age of Learning?

First and perhaps most obvious, learning will be more and more digitized. Whether we think of learning as text, voice, or images, more and more of it will be represented in digital form and with increasing richness and complexity. While video streaming, for example, is at present difficult over the Internet, the economic imperatives and opportunities associated with improving bandwidth are such that we will soon see the problem of limited bandwidth resolved, if not in full, at least in part.

Second, learning will be more and more networked and part of a "connected society." A student sitting in a conventional classroom on this campus or at the end of a wireless mouse anywhere in the world will be linked with persons, organizations, and resources everywhere in the world. In terms of access to and use of information and data, a student will have at her or his fingertips more than could ever repose in the memory of even the brightest faculty member or librarian. Moreover, tools to search out and acquire recondite information from this vast warehouse of information are being refined so that even a novice can explore questions and problems for which data and information are at least part of the answers and solutions.

Third, the globalization of learning and the long-standing interest here and elsewhere in measuring learning against national and international standards will lead, in my estimate, to learning increasingly being standardized. This standardization will not apply so much to the content of learning as it does to the learning outcomes associated with learning. Learning content will become richer and more diverse in the future.

Standardization of learning refers more to the growing consensus that students (and others) should understand and be able to assess what a person should know and be able to do as a result of a planned learning experience.

I believe that what we are seeing at the K-12 level will makes its way to postsecondary education and the focus on learning outcomes will further a trend toward standardization of learning.

Fourth, as learning is standardized (at least with respect to outcomes) and is rendered in digital form, I anticipate that some learning will be commoditized. Consider the software program TurboTax™, a perfect example of how professional expertise, in this case, tax knowledge and preparation skill, is turned into what one wag has called "congealed information" as a digital download from the Internet or in CD form and becomes, in effect, a commodity.

Commodities are subject to the forces of supply and demand. As more learning becomes more standardized and more of a commodity and is available in digital form, supply can grow fairly quickly at very little cost: 50,500 or 5,000 more digital versions of TurboTax™ cost very little to produce or distribute, in the case of downloading from the Internet. Supply, then, might be able to grow to meet the exploding demand for learning and costs could remain stable or even come down.

Fifth, standardization and commoditization can also lead to learning being atomized, that is, organized into smaller and smaller units based, for example, on required time-on-task. These units can then be bundled and rebundled to meet a variety of needs, including learning style preferences.

Sixth, all of these changes will make it possible for providers to customize and personalize learning. As large-scale purchasers of learning enter the marketplace in greater numbers than is even now the case (and the current demand for training and education is already huge), they will want learning to be customized to meet organizational goals and objectives and will expect and receive volume discounts. Such is already the case, but you can anticipate much, much more of this type of customization of learning in the years to come.

Perhaps more exciting is the personalizing of learning, or what someone has dubbed "mylearning dot edu or dot com" to signify the extent to which advances in technology and more than fifty years of solid scientific research on how people learn and how they like to learn are converging and making it possible for an individual to have information and learning designed and delivered in ways that are most comfortable and effective to him or her and their particular learning style. This takes on enormous importance in any case by getting us out of the business of assuming that one style fits all, but is all the more valuable given the diversity of persons who will be seeking to learn in the decades ahead.

Learning content will not be standardized as much as might be expected and some in higher education fear. We are already seeing that the Internet creates the capacity to engage in what appears to be an oxymoron known as "mass customization" in that intelligent servers accumulate and systematize information about persons’ preferences and, on the basis of similarities and differences among preferences, make it possible to tailor information and services according to the groupings that emerge. In addition, artificial intelligence applications are able to "learn" from and adapt to transactions over time. What this means to me is that we will need a diversity of content to respond to the diversity of learners and learning styles and not have "a" or "the" single source of wisdom for the Civil War or the laws of thermodynamics or whatever.

And the richness of content assumes still more importance if you are prepared (as I am) to believe that learning will be "multimediated"– the seventh change I see taking place already. Free e-mail is available now if you have a computer and connectivity and companies such as Netzero provided users with free and unlimited Internet access and garnered 1.7 million takers willing to put up with banner advertising, lousy connections, and no support service.

Limited bandwidth bedevils everyone at present, but the economic stakes that hinge on a solution to this are simply so great that the marketplace will move quickly, I believe, to solve the problem, so that, collectively and fairly soon, we will see the issues of access and the digital divide as well as bandwidth resolved in part or in whole and more persons will be able to partake of learning replete with video, audio, animation, and other formats.

Eighth, all of this "-izing" comes to bear with the recognition that learning will be increasingly activated, by which I mean that persons will learn in order to do something, to act on the learning, and to do so in a very immediate, real-time sense. From now on, persons who are confronted with tasks or problems will seek to acquire "just in time" learning that enables them to complete tasks or to solve problems and the technology to make that possible is here and the access is increasingly available.

If you have visited sites such as Hungry Minds, you can get a sense of what lies ahead in providing learning that addresses immediate, near-, mid- and long-term needs. For example, one of the providers available via Hungry Minds is Clear Station, which bills itself as "the intelligent investment community" and offers courses of immediate practical application such as "reading price action graphs" so that you can make a specific investment decision. ISong lets you learn to play songs on the guitar, and when I was writing this just at Christmas, afforded me the opportunity to play "Greensleeves." offers courses on careers and jobs, Rodale provides learning about low-fat diets, and Sessions makes it possible to learn graphic design. And lest you think all of this too pedestrian to count as "real learning," be assured that you can access PBS’s tele- and Web courses, the Princeton Review, and the University of Maryland University College degrees.

Ninth and finally (though I have by no means exhausted my list of "-izings" and "-atings"), learning will be democratized by which I mean that learning may be more accessible to more people everywhere and price may not be as much of a barrier as is the case at present. The costs of providing digital learning to an additional X-number persons is not as significant if those persons have access to such learning.

But the democratizing of learning I see emerging also relates to providers’ increased accountability for the effectiveness of the learning they deliver. If access to technology and technology-based learning improves and is expanded, more people will be able to avail themselves of learning. If, as I suggest, learning is commoditized and rendered more standard, especially in terms of learning outcomes, then learners will be able to compare learning experiences more directly than is now the case and judge how well (or how poorly) some experiences meet their personal and professional needs versus other experiences and other providers.

We can already see the emergence of both "popular" and "expert" review and rating systems that purport to provide unbiased assessments of products and services. solicits and makes reviews available to others who then rate the reviewers and the reviews. Please note that while does not presently review schools or colleges, their site as of late December says that such reviews are on the way.

Democratization also means that students will be able and increasingly capable of acquiring learning from a multiplicity of sources simultaneously. Indeed, it may be that by mid-century, students enrolled at and attending a single postsecondary institution is the exception, not the norm. Moreover, people may not be looking to either public or private colleges and universities, as we know them, as the principal providers of learning.

Now it will not have escaped notice that few or none of these changes I have suggested may occur are simple or minor modifications to conventional learning or to the ways that things are done on most college campuses. I know that many persons will be challenged and even angered by some of these possible changes and what they mean for dearly-held ideas about learning, about higher education. And to the extent that that anger manifests itself in resistance, some and perhaps many of these changes may not come exactly as I have suggested and may not come as soon as might otherwise be the case. But I think Greg Farrington, president of Lehigh University, was probably right when he stated in his inaugural address in 1998 that "higher education cannot escape history" and some if not all of these types of changes are near to hand in some fashion or another.

But even if there is reason to be concerned, outraged or fearful of the changes that could be on the near-term horizon, these changes also portend extraordinary opportunity and may offer some real hope. If the costs of acquiring access to learning are reduced or at least do not continue recent years’ paths of sharp increases, then more people will be able to learn. If technology can be applied in such a way as to accommodate better the diversity of ways by which persons seek to learn, then perhaps more people will indeed by successful learners. If technology-based or technology-enhanced learning shrugs off the constraints of time, distance, and content and teachers and students alike are able to embrace the contributions of thinkers and artists, scientists and practitioners from all over the globe, then learning will be richer.

Critical Reviews

Critic KK

click here for comments

Critic P

click here for comments

Critic CC

I think the article should definitely be published as it raises some important issues for schools. I offer the following recommendations for the editing process:

Critic G

To begin with a small point, it is not learning which is digitized, but learning resources. This may be a small point but perhaps it is representative of the rather sloppy and unsupported statements, yet very confident, which litter this article.

I am concerned that there are no references to the quite extensive 'futurology' literature on this theme, a literature which also poses problems for what might be called 'the naive scenario' which this article represents.

I will just raise some of these problems:

  1. Bandwidth, there is no evidence that this is near solution over the Internet, given the expansion in users, and the high bandwidth needed to get good quality full screen/full motion video. No one has yet explained how use will not expand to consume capacity as it does with multilane highways, producing blockages. Even worse, the very globalness of the Internet will mean there are few hours when use will drop, as it does with local roads. Serious providers will buy dedicated bandwidth probably using satellite point-multipoint, which hardly suggests an open democracy in delivery and access.
  2. The paper makes no discrimination between education and training, and thus between surface and deep learning. Nor is learning styles a generally accepted concept in two ways - there are those who think it would be wrong to feed a particular style as opposed to seeking to diversify learning styles of individuals, and there are those who think they are a myth, arguing that learning strategies are the more rich and real concept, with the notion of individuals choosing strategies to meet particular learning situations.
  3. This kind of izing and ating is hardly new, which may not be a problem, there is always room for more in futurology! but there is no reference to previously articulated frameworks like the four Ds, disintermediation (removal of barriers), disaggregation (small chunks of learning), differentiation (an important consumer society concept of course, implying wide customisation, and probably very undemocratic hierarchies!), diffusion (global access, learning competence).
  4. Ignores the extra-educational roles of educational institutions, particularly social-psychological development, and this relates strongly to the age of learners and the degree of instrumentality in their learning, which increases with age, and thus means that most distance learners are older than 24, and mainly over 30, and know where their careers are going.
  5. The fact that ODL is in a way being replaced by the concept of distributed learning. That is, total distance education will be a smallish part of the market compared with mixed mode, for both educational and social reasons, cf the most successful commercial university is Phoenix which uses very little distance but is very effective in distributing access to f-t-f learning, at a cost currently less than most so-called cyber-universities and open universities.
  6. Societies growing in wealth will always want yet more conspicuous forms of expenditure (e.g., attendance at a campus university) and ways of differentiating. They will want this (personal and 'visible') differentiation in outcomes as well as process.

This article just rehashes old stuff and adds little that is new. More recent literature looks at the diversity of delivery and access options in this new century, and how these might interrelate - problems of accreditation, credit accumulation, portability of qualifications, employability, wealth creation/research etc. If this piece had referred to the literature and perhaps helped readers understand the possibilities and counterbalancing problems in a deeper way, it would be publishable. As it stands, no. We are past the time when this topic and polemic (and it is not that good a polemic) was thought challenging.