IN SILICON VALLEY and Multimedia Gulch (dockland San Francisco) a new learning industry is sprouting up fast.
Everyone in business - major multinationals, new start-ups and not-for-profits - seems eager to shape and bring in the revenues from the new knowledge, or network, economy. Gurus and academics enthusiastically write up the vision of a new future for technology and education.
The "education and training" market in the United States was put at $665 billion in 1998, and education on the Internet, worth $10 million, is expected to rocket over the next three to five years. The main target of the new players is skills training in the workplace, learning centres or at home.
The creativity and energy of the entrepreneurs are indeed prodigious. There is a compelling belief that Internet businesses are the future ("connections are in" and have a "law of increasing returns"), and that learning is a huge market waiting to be tapped by new products delivered over the wire.
Surprisingly perhaps, learning is a mission, not just a business opportunity. Learning packages and services are designed from the bottom up - from first principles of what learning is about. By our regimented standards, the pedagogy seems too free and easy. No two learning businesses appear to have the same conceptual framework or terminology.
Learning is interactive and cumulative so individuals need access to tutors (sorry, facilitators) and peers (sorry again, co-learners). Learning is by doing and by experience, not by rote or mere repetition. The approach is much more to find out what works and then get on with it fast, before someone else seizes the market edge you have spotted. (They just love aphorisms and slogans. Here's one: "if it works, it earns".) So do mainstream university and FE colleges in Scotland sit back and cherry-pick what is useful but keep clear of the hype? After all, commentators such as the Economist are forecasting that the bubble of over-capitalised Internet businesses will soon burst. Annalee Saxeninan's research on Silicon Valley and Highway 128 near Boston has shown that the phenomenon of enterprise and growth is not easily replicated.
But our US competitors are already here and already active. Spring, the former CRT Group plc acquired by Knowledge Universe, has a pound;70 million IT skills programme and wants to recruit and train 2,000 IT professionals ("no previous experience required"). Have a look at what its website (www.spring.com) now lists for recruitment and in-service training for teachers (particularly schools and special needs).
What's more, the new knowledge businesses are reinventing educational institutions. The Arthur Anderson Community Learning Centre in Almeda (www.aaclc.com) has set up a secondary school based on learning as experience and curriculum as student choice. With a series of "work areas" - including a television and video studio - it may look a bit like playgroups for teenagers. But it is well funded, not very systematically evaluated (surprisingly for a major international consultancy) and apparently enthusiastically liked by its pupils.
There is, of course, a mainstream and public service education system in California too. Discussions with the principal of Marin College (a two-campus community college in one of the wealthiest counties in the US) revealed much in common with our experience. A cash-strapped funding authority (California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office - www.cccco.edu) and a heavily unionised workplace indifferent or inflexible when asked to change. But there is an optimism which comes from co-location with major "edu-tainment" and leisure (home of mountain biking) businesses.
Have a look at College of Marin's scenario planning and success stories (www.marin.cc.ca. uk). Their vision-setting is a model of the new learning - inviting staff, students and community to contribute views about how to reconcile low or high state funding with a buyers' or sellers' market for education.
For colleges worried about the Scottish University for Industry, take a look at the California Virtual University (www.california. edu), the gateway to California's opportunities for distance learning. Scotland may not have the cash, the sun or the liberated philosophy of the Bay. Do we have the zeal to buy, borrow or steal the best of new learning to give our learners a competitive edge?
Maybe we need a guru or three to show us the way, or more venture capitalists and risk-takers to see and seize the new opportunities. Or maybe Scotland is just better at producing salaried tutors than sellers of learning?
Tom Kelly is chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges. He visited California with a group whose "Learning Journey" was sponsored by the Scottish Enterprise Learning Industry Development Network.
* For more on the Learning Journey and the organisations visited: www.knowherestore.comlidn.
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