"Bridging the Digital Divide of Learning"*

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In an earlier times, people searched for signs that foretold the coming of change and transformations. Today, signs appear that may well foretell the 21st Century as the Age of Learning, a time when

  • more people everywhere will need and seek to learn,

  • when learning will be a lifelong endeavor,

  • when learning can and will take place from virtually every context of daily life – at work, at home, even at school.

  • Furthermore, learning and the capacity to learn will become the important differentiators of successful individuals, communities, and societies.

In this new epoch you either learn or you do not work; you learn throughout your life; and the economy and society are increasingly organized around learning.

What are the signs that this new age is in the offing?

IBM estimates the U.S. market for lifelong learning at $665 billion and the global demand at $1.5 trillion (that's trillion). Enrollments in higher education in the U.S. will increase from this fall's 14.9 million students to a projected 24 million by the start of the second decade of this new century. Adult education has grown from 23 million participants in the early 1970s to an estimated 105 million Americans by 2005. Worldwide, half of the population is under the age of 21 and even today 130 million people have no access to education, so the unmet demand is huge and global.

But these numbers notwithstanding, just how important is learning? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 11 million new jobs will be created by 2006, of which 9 million will require at least a bachelor's degree for a person to be eligible to apply, 2 million will require two years of college, no new jobs will be produced for which a high school diploma will suffice, and there will be a net decline of new jobs for which someone with less than a high school diploma can apply.

Except for college faculty, everyone else knows that there is a relationship between salary and educational attainment. On average, a college graduate earns approximately $40,500 annually, while a high school graduate averages somewhere near $23,000, so that over a 45-year career a college graduate will earn nearly $800,000 more than his high school diploma counterpart. To give you some sense of the impact of this difference in earnings between college and high school graduates, consider that both North Carolina and Virginia – states smaller in population than my home state of Georgia – nevertheless award 7,500 more degrees annually than does the Peach State. That means that North Carolina and Virginia enjoy the bounty of $6 billion of wealth that accrues to them by having those additional 7,500 graduates and that is only one year's crop!

By these standards, then, the case can be made that we are indeed entering the Age of Learning. But other signs predict the coming of this new age.

Pricewaterhouse Coopers describes the world they see emerging in terms of six forces including industry convergence, e-business, corporate reporting, and the new Europe and the two others–the knowledge economy and the contest for talent–reflect the extraordinary importance of learning and the capacity to learn.

CNN's program "Moneyline" has "You are what you know" as its tagline.

But of all the signs that for me foretell the coming of an Age of Learning, none is more compelling than the change that has taken place in the economics of contemporary life. As Stephan Haeckel (1999: 27) has noted, traditional assets such as land, labor, capital and energy have maximum value before they are used and are, in economists' jargon, "appropriable," that is, once given away they are no longer possessed by the giver.

Knowledge, information, learning have no economic value until they are used. Those who provide information to others still have it, and the value of knowledge tends to increase rather than decrease with sharing and use, which is in contrast to more traditional assets.

These signs foretell an extraordinary opportunity for those of us involved in learning. More than ever before, people will need and seek to learn. 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 golden age could well be near to hand.

But recall the Yiddish proverb that cautions about wishing to much for something lest it come about and you discover other, less attractive aspects of that for which you wished. Consider, for example, what we have seen take place in health care during the past quarter century.

Clearly, health care is an essential human service and the past 25-plus years have seen an explosion of demand for health care and, as the Baby Boomer generation ages, we will see more demand for health care during this new century. Not surprisingly, as demand grew at a rate faster than supply, the costs of health care increased dramatically and attracted attention, concern, and, most recently, measures to regulate, stabilize, if not reduce health care costs have been deployed.

Those among you who know of persons who work in the health care sector will have heard the stories of how complex and difficult times have been during the past quarter century and, as a board member for a major regional hospital in Atlanta, I can attest to how difficult health care providers find their work as they contend with exploding demand, growing public and market pressures to limit costs, to use technology not simply in the treatment of illness but in the operational side of health care, and to attract good people to enter and remain in the practice and professions of health care.

So even as I ask you to believe that we are on the eve of a new age when what we try to do–promote learning–assumes a prominent, maybe even the central place in contemporary life, I caution you that that new age will bring with it dramatic changes to virtually everything we do. Technology will be a key factor in hastening in this new age and the changes that come with it, so understanding and having access to technology will be critical. 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.

But it will not have slipped your notice that these statements all began with the conditional word, "if," which suggests just how tentative all of them may be. That is all the more case when you add the contingency that none of this will matter one whit if some people have no access.


Critical Reviews

Critic AA

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Critic F

It is an interesting perspective on the issues facing  the "higher education industry" and the analogy to the hospital industry  is cogent. It would be a better article if the author expanded his examples a little bit. What are the lessons that higher education can  really learn? How can we make the transition better?

Critic PP

This article has no real content that I can see. There  is also paragraph after paragraph of figures and statistics with no  citation.

I don't think it can be salvaged.

Critic D

Some brief comments from the article: "These signs  foretell an extraordinary opportunity for those of us involved in  learning." Regretfully, I didn't see much in the way of what the  "extraordinary opportunity" would be like. The ending, too, suggests we  can sit back because this is all "if." Mixed message.

The tidbits of data and observation are interesting especially in one  place, but the article doesn't take the reader anywhere new. There's  nothing of aid to an educator giving him/her a path to pursue, questions to raise. And to end with doubt without exploring the implications seems unfair to the reader. Basically, there's not much here, but one person's  musings.

Interesting, I think the "be careful what you wish for, you might get   it" was a Chinese proverb, but it probably belongs to every group!

I wouldn't recommend publishing this.