It is commonplace to recognize that changes in societal norms and needs, including technological developments, change our academic programs and educational goals. For example, the development of land grant universities – focused on agriculture and technology – in the 1860s reflected the needs of an emerging industrial society. Similarly, the rise of normal schools – San Diego State’s provenance – reflected our society’s need for broad public education in America’s growing democracy of the 19th century.
The ties between specific technological developments and individual fields of study are even more direct. Aerospace engineering degrees emerged with human flight and molecular biology degrees emerged from a constellation of discoveries in genetics and biochemistry.
Clearly, the development of information technology is also producing program developments. The dramatic growth of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in computer science, computer engineering and information systems are three prominent examples.
A more complex question is whether the emergence of multifaceted and ubiquitous information technology should change our broad educational goals. In prior blogs – linked here and here – I have discussed how online learning technologies affect pedagogical approaches and business models in higher education. In this blog, I turn to the question of how these technologies are influencing our broad educational goals and programs.
To consider this issue via analogy, think about how the development of television in the 1950s changed our educational goals and programs. Television (and related media) allowed mass dissemination of information, including mass marketing, at a heretofore inconceivable pace and scope. This mass dissemination of information amplified the importance of the ability to persuade others and of the complementary ability to critically evaluate media messages in our society. Universities responded to this need by incorporating courses on mass communication and critical thinking into their general education curricula and by expanding specific programs in communications; public relations; marketing; and critical studies in ethnic studies, film studies, journalism, and sociology, among other areas.
The widespread availability of computing power and ubiquitous connectivity is also producing significant societal changes. Most dramatically, the reduced cost of information, computing power and other resources accessed through universal connectivity (e.g., 3-D printers), is dramatically democratizing the ability to produce things – products, algorithms, services and ideas. The computing power and information inherent in a watch or hand-held device that costs hundreds of dollars today would have cost hundreds of thousands– even millions – of dollars even two decades ago.
These developments create the possibility of an era of mass customization in which small groups with relatively limited resources become centers of production and innovation. In a dramatic departure from the future envisioned by Marx and Engels, the tie between investment capital and the mechanisms of production has been weakened. To prepare our students for this future, our educational programs must help them develop the abilities necessary to produce things – the abilities to design, collaborate and create.
The evolving notion of “design thinking” is one framework for preparing our students. Broadly defined, design thinking focuses on addressing important problems or challenges, developing collaborations to bring people with different abilities together, simulating or rapid prototyping of solutions to challenges, and iterative testing and refinement of potential solutions. At San Diego State, our Lavin Entrepreneurship Center and our Zahn Innovation Center, with its H.G. Fenton Company Idea Lab, are providing opportunities for growing numbers of students to participate in the design thinking process. Design thinking is but one concept for fostering the abilities and skills our students will need. I know our faculty, staff and students are considering, and will devise, many other academic and co-curricular frameworks as we educate students for a future in which relatively low-cost design and production capabilities are widely available.
It would be possible to imagine, as some have, that a focus on design, production and solving challenges highlights the importance of vocational education and diminishes the importance of a classical liberal arts education.
While there are few things in life that are exact, this surmise is exactly wrong.
Just as synthesis requires prior analysis, so the challenges of design thinking require the classical abilities of critical thinking, quantitative and scientific reasoning, and an understanding of diverse places, times and cultures that are at the heart of a liberal arts education. Meeting challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities presented by our information technology revolution requires taking these classical abilities and applying them in new frameworks of collaboration, synthesis and solution.
The changes in information technology that dominate our contemporary lives are revolutionary, and our education goals and programs must evolve. Yet, even as we embrace new educational approaches, we reaffirm the classical liberal arts education that allows us and our students to understand the implications of these changes and how to respond so we can address our society’s challenges. This is the great opportunity that presents itself at SDSU and throughout higher education.