The Learning Challenge

We will portray a postmodern scene and trace its implications. Imagine that you are a college student on a bus next to a tattooed, pierced man in his early twenties with torn jeans and a laptop on his knee listening to Brahms while apparently checking stock options online. A person with a First Nations (Indian) heritage in a three-piece suit is sitting across from him reading about the softwood lumber dispute and terrorism. At the next stop a white-haired woman in her seventies ties her bike to the rack in the front of the bus. She has taken her bike around the seawall downtown and is dressed quite flatteringly in a yellow and blue spandex suit and a racing helmet. She needs to get home in time to cook supper for her grandchildren. The bus passes two individuals covered in cardboard, sleeping on the sidewalk beside a new glass office tower with gargoyles, a clock tower and an all-you-can eat Chinese buffet. The pregnant woman standing beside you asks what you do for work. Would the college you attend have retraining? She is a defense lawyer, but after this maternity leave she wants to take up massage therapy.

Welcome to the postmodern world! Each of these individuals in the scene we described above dwells in a unique context. “The postmodern world is more style than thing.  It is a world in which old vocabularies and old oppositions of true/false, good/evil, theory/practice, heaven/hell get junked or refashioned to serve new purposes and new styles of inventing others and creating ourselves.” (Parker, 1997, p.7)  Each of the individuals in the scene we described above holds a unique view of the world and a unique set of strengths that rate his or her ability and need for learning. For many years of their lives, however, each of them has sat in desks arranged in rows with a teacher telling them the same thing and measuring their learning in the same way and for the same reasons. Today, students still register and attend classes. They come to the academy for their own reasons and to achieve their individual goals. We assume that these students, just like the world around us, are different from students a generation ago — especially those students who are very mature and very experienced adults.

We don’t want to oversimplify the distinction between young and old learners, for it is not just adult learners who need something different. Marc Prensky (2001a) claims that the differences between students and their teachers today are far more than just a generation gap of styles and fads. To our 20-year old students born in 1995, there were always computers and there were always microwave ovens. They were born well after humans landed on the moon — so that is ancient history. They were born as the Internet was born and have lived in this digital age all their lives. Prensky (2001a) suggests that these students are the digital natives — always having known a digital life and language. We of the older generations are the digital immigrants — learning a new language, but always a little bit handicapped in it by our first language. We can expand this thought to the way in which we conceptualize the world (not just the digital world). How might this new way of thinking that is inherent in this generation affect how knowledge will be conceptualized and therefore how teaching is conducted and learning is accomplished by some of us in the academy?

Traditional Models of Adult Education

Our students may continue to say that they desire what higher education is now offering – primarily a modern, pedagogically-based education (Model One). This education is suited to the labor market – to securing a favorable job and eventually pensions or stock options upon retirement. However, the value sets of these students may be substantially different from this modern, production-oriented view. Prensky (2001b) proposes that the discontinuity between student and instructor results primarily from the dissemination of digital technology during the last decades of the twentieth century. He claims that students today think differently. They receive information and process it differently. Their physiology expects a different approach to learning. If this is true — if students will be coming to our institutions with different value sets and therefore different expectations, and if the market of education is capable of a major transformation — what might the future of higher education look like?  How will postsecondary educational institutions respond to the postmodern challenge? Is there a broader role to be played by the newly-emerging models of adult education?

For many years, postsecondary educators have been interested in how individuals within unique contexts learn and how teaching affects student learning. We have adopted and adapted an array of assumptions about these two topics during our professional journeys. We are all aware of the rapid rate of change in our environment. We are being increasingly influenced by digital technology, the availability of information that this technology stuffs into our consciousness, and the way technology asks us to communicate with each other and view the world. We will articulate a set of assumptions that traditional educators have formulated about education and then place these assumptions in the context of postmodern thought.

Model One The Nature of Pedagogical Learning