CXO

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Education on the fly

Has academia lost its usefulness?

Written in Schaumburg and despatched to silicon.com from the wi-fi network in the Chicago O'Hare Airport

As a youngster I recall people impressing upon me the importance of getting an education. This was mostly expressed as a need to invest, or sacrifice, 'X' years at school and university in order to ensure a good and secure future working for a single company.

Much later I remember the term 'continuous education' emerging in response to a much faster world - faster in terms of physical transport and rapidly changing technology. At the same time the notion of a job for life seemed to have evaporated equally fast.

Inch by inch, the world moved on and the scene changed even further to a time of education by any means to hand. Today networking is a key element in getting any form of education and the school, college and university element has started to slide away from centre stage. Almost in the same way libraries of books have lost their significance so have many academic activities. We now have a far richer canvas of education at home, office and school, in fixed, temporary or mobile platforms. People pick up an education on the fly as they work every day.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, a lot of young people get by almost solely through exploiting their networks (ie surfing the web, exchanging emails etc). Is this the blind leading the blind? Perhaps! But I think it is a case of distributed ignorance winning over concentrated expertise.

Couple all this with a multimedia world where the best of the best have their knowledge and experience recorded for all time, where animations and simulations overtake the limitations of chalk and talk, and the sage on the stage becomes the guide at the side, and we have almost come full circle to the individual teaching methods of the ancient Greeks. And come to think of it, they used silica (sand) too!

Is there a downside to all this? I suspect that we all lust after a greater depth of understanding for ourselves and those around us, especially those younger than us.

But how many of us now know how an internal combustion engine works, or an electric motor - let alone a computer, integrated circuit, high speed weaving loom or power station? Does it really matter anyway? Well, someone obviously knows, there are just far fewer of them than 100 years ago, and hopefully we can find someone on the net when we are really in need. Already some countries are solely reliant on overseas expertise for their survival in terms of energy generation and technical support. Perhaps this is the ultimate networking - globalisation!

When I completed my PhD I felt I understood an infinite amount about nothing. Several decades and a lot of experience later, I feel I know nothing about an infinite amount! The reality is that with the equipment and networking available today I could now complete the same PhD in a fraction of the time. And this seems to be true of everything, apart from those areas where we really know nothing, that is. Then we are left to ponder and play until we discover where to apply the computing and networking power to best effect. But overall the outcome is faster than 30 years ago when some of it was an impossible task.

Overall I think this fast and fluid state works. Yes, it has its weaknesses but they are overcome by its tremendous strengths. As a species we are connected more every day, and collectively we know and understand more. If we could integrate (in the mathematical sense) understanding across all peoples, I suspect we would see a rapidly growing resource - and a far healthier picture than a few decades ago!

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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