posted on Nov. 22: Board chair predicts shift in role of post-secondary education


[img_inline align=”right” src=”” caption=”Douglas Barber”]The new knowledge-based economy will shift the role of a post-secondary education from imparting new knowledge to a focus on teaching, the chair of the University's Board of Governors says.

Douglas Barber believes the “knowledgeable society” of the future will look to academics less for new knowledge and much more for teaching.

“That teaching will not only be about what is known, but it will also be teaching young people to discover what isn't yet known — the skills of research,” he said. “That teaching will also have to be broader and more liberal while still providing excellence of specialization.”

Society will continue to look to academics, Barber added, “for the radical new thinking and discovery that comes from those exceptional, broad-minded, widely learned young people of uncommon genius.”

Barber, who was a part-time professor of engineering physics at McMaster until 1994, made the remarks Friday when he delivered the 23rd Alexander Graham Bell lecture at the Ewart Angus Centre.

The annual lecture was established in 1978 by the Faculty of Engineering and its Communications Research Laboratory in honour of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.

Barber told the large audience he chose early on to be a “knowledge worker” when he left the family farm in Saskatchewan to pursue his bachelor of science and master's of science degrees in electrical engineering at the University of Saskatchewan 40 years ago. He received his PhD from Imperial College, University of London in 1965. His research was on pn junctions in III-V intermetallic compounds.

Barber went on to co-found a company, now known as Gennum Corp., which was involved in designing, manufacturing and marketing bipolar monolithic integrated circuits. In April he retired from his position as president and chief executive officer.

In his lecture, Barber noted that 100 years ago, the average Canadian had six years of schooling. Today, the average person has 14 years of education and primary and secondary educations are mandatory.
As well, about 36 per cent of today's workforce has post-secondary qualifications, Barber said, and the need for more education is accelerating.

“The knowledge-based economy needs knowledge-skilled people. The investment is in human capital. We must be prepared to provide all of our young people with the opportunity and expectation of achieving appropriate post-secondary qualifications.”

Barber explained that these are the changes that must be made that will “move the average person to the much higher knowledge level required to create value and therefore to receive value in the knowledge economy.”

Presently, there is no expectation that everybody needs post-secondary education and Barber acknowledged that at the moment there isn't the capacity in academic environments to fulfil that type of expectation.

Barber noted that information technology has permeated society, changing the world of commerce and work.
He observed that the elimination of physical work continues as “smart machines” using information technology pervade work and home environments: TVs, dryers, thermostats, computers, security systems, exercise machines, personal digital assistants and hearing aids. People aren't needed for their physical capabilities as much as they are for their brain power.

“Increasingly in developed nations, every job requires a knowledge worker — a person who can access information, make good decisions and use the system to act on them,” he said.

Barber predicted there will be some disappointment when ideas such as e-commerce don't progress as quickly as some in society believe they should, but suggested “significant change” takes two generations.

After his lecture, he was asked what young people should be learning to excel in the new knowledge-based economy.

“It's extremely important for every person to have some liberal broad-based learning,” he replied.
“Every person should know something about our history, how our society works, how the economy works, something about other people.
“We clearly have to learn about communication. We don't get much instruction on how to listen. There are a lot of things like that that I see as elements that every person should know and we should be determined that every person should learn it.”