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The futurist: The half-life of a college education

Last week, I went through the process of analyzing how much of what I learned in college that I’m still using today. This ended up being a difficult thing to assess and quantify.

While most of my undergraduate coursework was focused on human factors engineering, I ended up taking several general courses like humanities, math, history, psychology, and accounting.

Looking over my classes, the three least useful courses were: how to use slide rules; Fortran programming (taught with punch card machines); and calculus, which I have never used. I certainly can’t say these courses were worth zero, but they hold very little value in my world today.

Putting aside my conclusions, it does bring up a much larger question: What skills are being taught today that will have little or no value in the future? 

More importantly, as college costs escalate, and repayment plans extend for decades, does the usefulness of a college education wear out before the payments end?

Technology is blazing forward at a torrid pace making lifelong learning part and parcel to our ability to stay relevant. Education has value, but exactly how much value and for how long? And what happens to the massive debt incurred by students when the knowledge is no longer relevant?

Here are a few thoughts on how the massive changes coming to colleges are being driven by the decreasing half-life of education. 

Our Current Time-Based Systems

In the past, courses were created to fit the arbitrary timeframe of a school schedule. Quarters and semesters were devised to make the learning process more manageable from a scheduling standpoint. This was done largely to benefit the operation of the school, not the students. 

Adding time and space requirements (i.e. classes are from 9:00-9:50 am MWF in classroom 254F) also made life easier for school administrators. Students needed to mold their lives around the demands of the school, because knowledge was a scarce commodity. As the owners of a scarce commodity, they made the rules.

The needs of the student were nearly always subservient to the needs of the school.

Enter the Internet

Once the Internet began connecting the world, a variety of new possibilities started to surface, shifting the focus away from the institution to the needs of the student. 

Today, knowledge is growing exponentially. In many fields, the useful life of knowledge is now measured in months rather than years. According to Cathy Gonzalez, in her 2004 paper on “The Role of Blended Learning in the World of Technology:

“One of the most persuasive factors is the shrinking half-life of knowledge. The “half-life of knowledge” is the time span from when knowledge is gained to when it becomes obsolete. Half of what is known today was not known 10 years ago. The amount of knowledge in the world has doubled in the past 10 years and is doubling every 18 months according to the American Society of Training and Documentation (ASTD). To combat the shrinking half-life of knowledge, organizations have been forced to develop new methods of deploying instruction.”

But not all knowledge and skills are created equal. Learning to read, do math, write proficiently, and speak eloquently are still highly valued skills in today’s world. Operating a slide rule, not so much.

Status Learning vs. Functional Learning

Spending four years in a college to earn a degree is all part of achieving status. Only a relatively small portion of what is learned will hold long-term value.

Functional learning is comprised of the knowledge and skills needed to maintain functional relevancy in the world today. As an example, a person who manages a software company will find management skills useful throughout their career even though the software itself is constantly morphing and changing.

We develop functional learning in many ways, driven primarily by a current need. Most of the time, getting “credit” for something we urgently need to learn is only a distant consideration.

Yet, in our seemingly upside down world, colleges charge far more money for “status learning” where credits are assigned than the functional knowledge and skills that are often learned elsewhere. But all that is changing.

Tomorrow: Rise of the MOOCs

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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