June 16, 2012 Mike Gwaltney no responses

Graduation Questions

20120616-102411.jpgLast night was graduation for the OES class of 2012, and I couldn’t help thinking about how different their world will be than the one I thought I was entering on my graduation day exactly 25 years ago. In 1987, it seemed clear to me that I could pick a professional career, get some schooling, and expect that career would be durable for the next 40 or so years.

But seemingly everything has changed and career paths are being disrupted like never before. Some of the careers I considered have either gone the way of the Dodo bird or are on their way to extinction. Forget about choosing journalism and expecting to settle down at a newspaper for the rest of your working life. Family Law? How many easy divorce dot coms are there now? Accounting? Outsourced. Psychotherapy? (Yes, I considered it.) Brain research might be telling us much of our behavior is predetermined. Teaching? Well, I’m skeptical about the future of my chosen field.

From what I gather from their comments, these graduates don’t quite get this new world yet.

Maybe it’s just natural to see the future in simplistic terms when you’re young. Certainly, I did not have a nuanced notion of the world when I was 18. I think I quite justifiably believed that success could be guaranteed by studying, and becoming somewhat expert and certified in a field. Surely change was incremental in professional fields and it would be safe to expect my time at university in my late teens and twenties would, for the most part, carry me through my working life.

I was wrong.

Since it hit me in the late ’90s that technology would eventually change everything about teaching, I’ve been trying to reinvent myself. The history department I joined in 1991 was one I’d been well trained for – a group of smart, dedicated, mid- and late-career historians who knew their content and had polished their standard lectures about ancient Rome, the Renaissance, or the American Civil War. At the time, it seemed perfectly plausible that I could settle into the career that they had. But of course, the internet has transformed access to information and teachers like my first colleagues have had to change or are holding on for dear life.

I’ve done pretty well since then, and today I’m told that I’m an expert in eLearning, a field that didn’t really exist 25 years ago. But I don’t feel like an expert. I think eLearning and online learning are changing too rapidly for anyone to consider oneself an expert. I know I have a strong grasp on what it takes to be an eLearning professional at this moment, but I really believe that eLearning and education in general is changing too quickly to know what’s coming a year from now, let alone to be able to say I know enough to be set for the next 25 years. Success in my field requires constant and never-ending learning. Reinvention is an ongoing process, and one without a defined end date.

It’s likely that these graduates will find the first 25 years after high school much more turbulent than I’ve found mine. Expecting to “make my Intel business card and settle in for the long-term” won’t cut it. Do they get that what they need to do is perfect being learners and not being experts? I hope so.

So this morning, I have some graduation questions.

Did we show them that information is ubiquitous and that the cost of getting it is rapidly approaching zero? Do they understand that knowing more than the next person is only temporarily valuable? Do they know how to access the latest information and how to build and use a network of other professionals to stay on the leading edge of change?

Do they know the career they’ve been dreaming of may not exist in the future? Or that it may radically change? Have we taught them how to turn on a dime and reinvent themselves professionally?

Do they have the flexibility of mind that their future will require, when rapid change will be a constant?

Have we trained them to be lifelong learners?

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Mike Gwaltney