The beginning is nigh

4th April 2014 at 01:00

The late Tom Stonier often argued that the rapidly increasing number of researchers in the world combined with the upward trajectory of the processing power of computers was fuelling an explosion of knowledge. The professor's ideas, expressed some 30 years ago, have proven true, probably to a degree even he could not have imagined.

Every day, thousands of scientific and technological papers and articles are published, often revealing new knowledge. The remarkable thinker and inventor Ray Kurzweil has written widely on humankind's burgeoning knowledge base, and its impact on technological advancement and education. A little over a decade ago, he predicted that progress in the 21st century would be "equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at [2003's] rate".

In today's Scotland, we are not immune to the challenges presented by an accelerating rate of growth in knowledge. With the advances in educational technologies, alongside the new skill demands of the modern economy plus the concomitant changes in social habits and expectations - particularly among the young - there is a need to ensure that our approaches to education are able to meet the requirements of our fast-changing world.

On the one hand, I have been impressed by some of the innovative endeavours in our colleges to address these challenges in recent years. But on the other, I have been increasingly concerned that areas of educational work are still stuck in an inefficient and ineffective rut.

At best, colleges are adopting new ways of working to meet the needs of students and society. This might mean taking a fresh approach to using technology, recruiting people with new types of expertise, making better use of what used to be called "support staff" or responding to the preferred learning styles of students.

At worst, though, we see restrictive practices enforcing rigid and inappropriate class-based teaching, in blocks of time geared more towards traditional patterns of work than to meeting students' learning needs.

Given our rapidly changing circumstances and the challenges that learners will face in their lives, we need to ensure that colleges are adopting the best educational practices for the future.

It is surely time for a detailed review of best practice in teaching methodologies and in the context of the needs of modern society. Any such review must not simply reflect the existing organised interests and structures. Instead it must be free to explore how education should change to address the challenges of today's world. This will help to articulate the range of approaches needed to best serve the interests of students and society alike.

Roger Mullin is an honorary professor at the University of Stirling, a former member of the Scottish government change team and an adviser on post-16 educational reform

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