10/19/2011 12:35 pm ET | Updated Dec 19, 2011

Education in the Age of Information

I work with a team of interdisciplinary faculty to offer a MSc in Multimedia and Entertainment Technology program at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. In our program, each new semester starts with many discussions with students in an attempt to change the preconceptions of what education is and about. As an educator, its disheartening to talk to students who are more interested in what will take to get a good grade than the actual course material. I can't really blame them because our education system (especially in Asia) has set up a structure to focus on grades an early age. I see it firsthand with my four young children who are going through the process now.

Many of the problems with today's education system are documented in the media with films like (Waiting for Superman) and (2121). The "bean counting" approach to qualifying students with standardized tests, curriculum, etc. has led to what Asian students call a "duck feeding" approach to education (for westerners unfamiliar with the term "duck feeding," think about how foie gras is produced with the student being the duck, and education being the food that they force down their throats).

If education is thought of as providing students with information, today's Internet world is radically different from the pre-Internet world. From a content point of view, there isn't much we can teach students that isn't already online. In fact, many of the top Universities such as Berkeley, Harvard, and Stanford have complete subjects available for free on the Internet (there a nice directory of subjects at itunesU). The irony is that as access to information becomes cheaper and cheaper, education and tuition fees continue to increase!

As physical academic institutions, how do we maintain relevance in today's information rich society? People like Peter Thiel have cited higher education as being the new "bubble" (something that is over-valued and intensely believed). So much so, that his foundation created at 20 under 20 program to encourage college students by paying them $100K USD over two years to drop out and become entrepreneurs instead.

At the heart of the problem of education today is in how it is perceived and valued. For many people in Asia, getting an education is about getting a high paying job. Students strive to get high grades because of their belief that high grades will translate to higher salary levels. The underlying message is that society values people not by what they've learned or who they are, but by how well their grades are and how much they earn.

From the perspective of educational institutions and potential employers who have to assess the delivery of education and abilities of a graduate, standardized test scores and grades are a way of quantifying value in some way. It isn't an easy problem to solve in today's fast-paced, accountability oriented world, but our current solution is driven by the same mentality that has led to factory farming (optimized production of animals) and fast food (no time). If we are interested in developing a workforce that fuels innovation, our present education system isn't really working as well as it could. How does one quantify creativity, problem solving, decision-making, persuasive arguing, and management ability?

Perhaps one solution lies in redefining the value of an education. I am deeply inspired by a book titled Education and the Significance of Life and available online. The book makes an argument that education is not merely about training the mind, but about understanding ourselves and to live by this integrated understanding. The ancient Greeks and early originators of organized education in the west recognized that true education was ultimately about self-knowledge, or to "know thyself."

So what is the role of modern universities and postgraduate programs?

As a faculty member of an academic institution and overseeing a post-graduate program, I believe our role as educators is to inspire students to discover what is possible by connecting them to their own intuition and passion, and providing them with the skills to help make the unknown known. The discipline (in our case, multimedia and entertainment technology) becomes provides a context into this inquiry toward understanding "who am I" and "what is motivating me to do what I want to do."

Part of our approach is to instill a culture of openness, relevance (staying current with new developments and models, and understanding their significance), inquiry, and curiosity (what if?). While online education may be able to teach theories, concepts, and processes, it's hard to instill a culture, which comes through spontaneity, empathy, and intuition. Our program includes open laboratories and a commercially oriented space where students can witness "business in action" and its associated vibe. Our weekly speaker series, "brown bag" dinner, and extracurricular activities and field trips also promote an open culture. All of the teaching faculty also get together on a regular basis to track progress and issues that arise.

Rather than the traditional "you must get past me to graduate" adversarial relationship between educators and students, the relationship is reframed as a "we are on the same team working toward your future success" collaborative relationship. Each student is unique. I for one much rather play the role of a "coach" of an athlete working their way through a competitive season rather than the role of a ringmaster at a circus armed with a bullwhip, persuading aggravated lions to jump through flaming hoops. With our knowledge of technology, the industry, and students' interests and abilities, our role as educators should be to illuminate and inspire.

Another aspect of our program is to spend time on unlearning as well as learning. Unlearning is the process of becoming aware of how one's conditioning (past experience) biases one's worldview and behavior. It is an important part of self-discovery. Skills such as introspection, reflection, empathy (stepping out of one's customary world-view), and non-verbal communication are also important to future success. Leadership in managing large creative teams involving different disciplines to work together collaboratively to innovate requires a high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ), patience, and self-knowledge.

These are some of the ways we are working toward reforming education in our MScMET program. It is very much a work in progress, but so far we are having a great time. As the semester goes on, our students do notice the difference and it is also reflected in the quality of their work.