Monday, February 12, 2007

Formal Education v. Lifelong Learning

Every one of us has (a) gone to school and (b) continued learning long after graduation day. And many (all?) of us are fond of saying things like, "I've learned way more in the 'real world' than I ever did in the classroom." And that's no doubt true.

Take me, for instance. I spent forever in school. In addition to my general education, there were those years in graduate school, where I essentially trained to become a professional researcher of all things political. But even I will say that my growth as a political scientist has been much greater since I left Duke than in the years Desi and I spent in Durham. I've learned much more in my personal "real world" than I ever did as a formal student.

So where does that leave formal education? What do we need it for?

Well let's ask a counterfactual. Could I have become a political scientist without all of my formal training? In reality, the answer has to be "no." At one level, it is simply a matter of credentialing. Without a Ph.D. from a place like Duke, I simply would have been dead on the job market. At another level, the bringing together of all the knowledge and skills that happened for me in graduate school would have essentially been impossible to accomplish outside of a structured curriculum and program.

That said, it is just as certain that nothing I did during my formal education directly prepared me for conducting research on the role of information technology in the making of public policy (one of my current research interests). I don't think I knew what "IT" was when I was in school! Had that term even entered into our lexicon back then (the oh-so-long-ago early 1990s)? There is no doubt, then, that I have been a lifelong learner when it comes to my professional endeavors.

Here are some challenges, as I see them, for formal education and lifelong learning in the years ahead.

What is the place of the formal education in a world where information is being disseminated on a wider and wider basis? It is much easier than ever (thanks to the Internet) to go through syllabi on the politics of the policymaking process (or whatever) and figure out what is deemed essential knowledge in this area of inquiry. Heck, the web can allow us to form "communities of learning" around shared interests that might even define things like "essential knowledge" on their own, outside of a formal structure of education.

Can lifelong learning develop reasonable ways of credentialing? How do we go about evaluating how well or poorly we have fared in our lifelong learning? Professionally speaking, there still are formal gatekeepers out there in front of us. For me, the test is when I try to publish my research on information technology and politics. That's when I learn, in stark terms, whether or not I've digested and synthesized new knowledge and skills in a useful way.

But what about outside of professional settings? There are lots of competitors out there in cyberspace, individuals and entities striving to provide us with new knowledge, new ways of learning about our world. As many of us can surely attest, it often is not very easy sorting out the real value-added from those competitors who bring nothing but "noise." What is the best way for me to learn Mandarin? What is the most efficient way for me to train for a triathlon?

I'm not trying to resolve anything here. In the end, it really isn't "formal education v. lifelong learning." That's too artificial of a dichotomy. But what I will say is that formal education has no choice but to increasingly come to grips with the ever-expanding richness of the learning environment that exists outside the so-called Ivory Tower. And, for its part, the process of lifelong learning has to be guided by some kinds of standards of evaluation. Without such standards, lifelong learning risks becoming nothing more than the province of commerce, hobbies, and things we do in our spare time for pure enjoyment. Nothing wrong with leisure pursuits, of course, (they are, I would argue, essential to our being) but if we really want to harness the power of new ways of learning, then best practices have to emerge or be developed. And, I would argue, there is no reason ex ante to rule out institutions of formal education as a potentially useful source of ideas about best practices out there in the world of lifelong learning.



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