You don’t know what you think you know.
Planned obsolescence is often cited as the way tech companies (Apple) can guarantee sales: after a few years, their devices and software would either break down or otherwise cease proper functioning, requiring users to pay for upgrades to shinier, faster, newer models.
Higher education has fallen into a similar model—though instead of planned, it seems to have happened by default.
University degrees, and the knowledge and skills they are supposed to represent, have a short (and still-diminishing) relevance life-span. By some estimates, after anywhere from a few years, to only a few months, depending on the industry, applications will have advanced beyond what schools taught.
Unlike with cell phones, though, degrees aren’t being replaced—they just get more expensive.
Last Year’s Model
Examples of the problem are numerous. Just to stay relevant, engineers must commit to a lifetime of study: five hours a week, every week, are estimated to be the minimum required to stave off obsolescence and stay current with technology.
In the medical field—which already requires practitioners engage in continuing education to keep abreast of research, emerging techniques, and to re-certify medical licenses—the half-life of knowledge is only five years. Within that time (which, incidentally, is less than the time it typically takes for students to complete medical school in the first place), half of what is considered medical ‘fact’ will be disproven, and therefore irrelevant to continuing practice.
This means that, for many students, the time it will take to pay off student loan debt will be much longer than the span of viability for the knowledge acquired in the degree program—or even the program itself.
It would seem that if degrees are supposed to make more competitive job-applicants (indeed, one can scarcely find work these days without an undergraduate degree), they can only do so superficially. So what does this mean for the future of university education?
First, disruptive change is the new normal, without regard to specialty—the university model ought to better reflect that reality. The modern university-centered education model is not entirely broken or irrelevant—it just needs to focus on preparing modern professionals to engage in continuing education.
More important than presuming to offer cutting-edge skills and industry-specific knowledge is that degree programs teach students to learn, and offer them techniques for staying abreast of interruptive changes within an industry.
This would fit in with the idea that, upon completion of their degree programs, students participate in a “commencement” ceremony. The end of formal, institutional education means the beginning of professional application and on-going study. Chief among these skills is the ability of students—and the professionals they become—to utilize modern communication technology.
The sum of human knowledge—even industry-specific, highly specialized knowledge—is beyond the grasp of even the most motivated lifelong learners. Instead of aspiring to fight the expansion of knowledge, then, successful students must simply learn to access emerging data, and remain a part of the conversation.
The technology we use to access, share, and evaluate information is, after all, part of the reason for the acceleration of change and understanding. Keeping connected—rather than trying to keep ahead—is practical, and achievable, in a way that older classroom and certificate-based continuing ed systems simply are not.
Enter the Machine
When facts can change faster than formal education can keep up, new systems are needed to help society compensate. The healthcare industry is in the early stages of transition into just such a model.
2015 marks the culmination of a nation-wide transition to Electronic Health Record (EHR) platforms in hospitals, clinics, and practices of all sizes. When successfully implemented, the very interface of these platforms will assist clinical decision-making to the point of helping doctors perform their jobs better.
When medical research indicates that a particular treatment is more effective than what conventional knowledge would suggest, the EHR interface can make it more difficult for doctors to order a different treatment, guiding them toward using the preferred one. This makes changes in clinical behavior virtually automatic.
Although the primary goal is simply modernizing data-management to reduce costs, improve outcomes, and generally pursue better efficiency, health informatics (the field of data management analysis that has cropped up to better utilize the explosion of data collected through EHRs) has the effect of uniting theory–research, emerging science, improved information—directly with practice.
While this does not eliminate the need for continuing education, it does help streamline the process of application.
So if technology has begun to replace our reliance on limited individual knowledge, what does the future hold for academic models?
Since so much continuing and professional education is increasingly virtual, it seems a natural starting point. As futurist Thomas Frey has pointed out, education rooted in brick-and-mortar institutions subscribes to a time-based system of both learning, and credentialing. This is as impractical, under the modern lens, for students as it is for a society depending on highly-skilled professionals.
Virtual distance-learning models unpin education from time-based (and, for that matter, place-based) systems in favor of student-managed learning. This makes “schools” more accessible, as well as helping professionals blend work and study without necessitating the difficult choice between the two.
Brick-and-mortar institutions are increasingly getting on board with this model. Ohio University has moved more than a dozen of its Master’s degree programs onto a digital format with the clear intent of better reaching practicing professionals. Meanwhile, the University of Florida has distinguished its Medication Therapy Management program (which applies health informatics in the pharmaceutical setting) by not only offering the country’s first such degree program, but making it available exclusively online. Again, technology is linking learning with application.
Relevance today is a moving target, but that doesn’t put it out of reach. Technology—especially virtualization—may be the key to keeping pace with constant transformation.