Historical Context of the Problem

In the last decades of the second millennium the world has experienced significant transformation. Few sectors of North American society have remained unscathed by the movement from a territorial, industrial order to a global information community. In Adults as learners, Cross (1986, p. ix) writes,

Lifelong learning is not a privilege or a right; it is simply a necessity for anyone, young or old, who must live with the escalating pace of change — in the family, on the job, in the community, and in the world-wide society.

With the corresponding increase in world wide competition, industry has had to resort to greater and greater automation to increase production and cut the largest expense item — employee wages.

A Vancouver Island, British Columbia example will serve to illustrate the effects of the information age on blue collar workers. Just north of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada is the town of Chemainus. For most of this century Chemainus has been a lumber mill town. In the early 1980’s the mill, which employed over 600 workers, was closed. When a new, more highly automated one opened up a year later, just over a hundred workers were required to produce the same amount of lumber. Of those hired for the new mill, few were original employees. The new workers required skills in team building and information technology, skills that were not called for in the old mill but critical to productivity in the new. The major employment in the town is now in the tourism industry that sprang up around the murals the town put up to celebrate its logging industry past.

Blue collar workers are not the only ones experiencing the discomfort associated with change. More recently middle managers have experienced similar pressures. Traditionally this sector has been charged with managing the information flow to the executive decision makers. However, today’s electronic information technology allows company operating officers direct, personal access to essential data. In Victoria, “(t)he Bank of Montreal has fired up to 24 employees who the bank said couldn’t keep up with the changing banking industry (Helm, 1995, September 12, p. B3)”. Thus displaced white collar workers must also find other employment. Typically this new employment is in some form of small business which, as the engine of the new economy, is providing the majority of new jobs (Times-Colonist, 1994, p. B11). These shifts in employment and related job security were confirmed by Canada’s Minister of Human Resources, Lloyd Axworthy. Two decades ago a student could complete university and step into a job that promised job security. Now, according Axworthy (1995), today’s graduates have far more difficulty. Even those professionals with job security such as lawyers, doctors and teachers are faced with knowledge explosion problems brought about by technology. According to the encyclopedia Encarta ’94 (1994), historians have observed this phenomenon before.

Many historians of science argue not only that technology is an essential condition of advanced, industrial civilization but also that the rate of technological change has developed its own momentum in recent centuries. Innovations now seem to appear at a rate that increases geometrically, without respect to geographical limits or political systems. These innovations tend to transform traditional cultural systems, frequently with unexpected social consequences. Thus technology can be conceived as both a creative and a destructive process.

At the turn of the last century the application of creative industrial paradigms to schooling helped humans make the transition from the agrarian age. Perhaps information age paradigms can help educators facilitate this current transition.

Those actively involved in research in adult education, like Patricia Cross (1986), recognize that transformations brought about by new technologies have brought major social and political changes to the work force.

The explosion of knowledge means that almost all professionals are self-directed learners; but most are also spending increasing amounts of time in a wide variety of organized learning activities.

The American Society for Training and Development estimates that by the end of this decade, 75 percent of the work force will need retraining (Twigg, 1994). Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs are experiencing the increasing effects of this transformation. Adults, many ill-equipped to be the life long learners today’s economy demands, are returning to school in increasing numbers. What has caused this migration? In most cases these students come with an educational background that has not prepared them to be the lifelong learners today’s world demands.

The modern education system for the masses is a relatively recent innovation, the origin of which can be traced to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Today’s public schooling is a product of the industrial revolution. In the previous agrarian age most learners received whatever education they needed in the home, or workplace. Fathers passed on their skills to their sons, mothers to their daughters. Those who desired a more formal education either paid for a tutor or joined the church. The beginning of the twentieth century brought the industrial age to Canada. With it came factories and, by necessity, the public school system. Fathers first, and then mothers, began working outside the home often in a highly structured and specialized environment. The family unit gave way in importance to the factory unit, complete with a supervising foreman. What was to be done with the children?

North American and western world societies developed the factory model of schooling based on the division of labour model that made industrialization so efficient and successful. Each teacher, like a factory foreman, was responsible for supervising a group of students. Just as in the industrial age factory, there were bells, buzzers and clocks to tell the student-workers when to begin and end their day. Again, just as in the factory model, obedience to the foreman was critical. Thanks to the melding of citizens schooled in this industrial age manner with industrial age technology, western society prospered. Thus, for as long as the world remained in the industrial age, the factory model served society well. Much of this system remains in place in today’s schools. However, with the advent of the information age, increasing criticisms of the factory model of schooling began to be heard.

Next – – Current Context of the Problem