Just-in-Time Education: Learning in the Global Information Age

Just-in-Time Education: Learning in the Global Information Age

Published: August 30, 2000 in Knowledge@Wharton

The
problem with experience, to paraphrase American baseball player Vernon
Law, is that it gives the test before the lesson. Students either spend
countless hours in classrooms acquiring knowledge that isn t applied
until years later (if at all) or they are tested by experience before
they even have a chance to learn what they need. Wouldn t it be much
better to get the knowledge when and where they need it  in real time?

Wharton marketing professors Jerry Wind and David Reibstein
think so. In a new paper titled, "Reinventing Training for the Global
Information Age," they lash out at the traditional educational model
and simultaneously propose a new model for management education.
"Knowledge is the new source of competitive advantage," Wind and
Reibstein say. "Training, therefore, is not peripheral but a central
activity of successful 21st century firms. Companies need
radically new knowledge to succeed in an environment in which whole
industries are created and destroyed or unalterably transformed by
relentless technology, competitive shifts and changing demographics."

It
isn t as though companies are unaware of this challenge. After all,
they spent more than $60 billion on training in 1998 alone. Wind and
Reibstein wonder, however, whether companies are getting true value for
their cash. "Throwing thousands of managers into classrooms or passing
out CD training programs doesn t mean that knowledge is actually
transferred or that the knowledge conveyed is what managers will need
to succeed in the future," they argue. Business leaders now
increasingly view the billions they spend on training "not as an
employee perk but as a strategic investment, and their concern is how
to increase the return on the growing training budget."

What s
wrong with the traditional educational model? According to Wind and
Reibstein, that model delivers standardized content, in a discrete time
and place, usually in a passive setting. In other words, a professor in
a lecture hall imparts knowledge to a large number of students, who may
be briefly engaged in discussions but are mostly passive. The lecturer
also uses a one-size-fits-all approach, since the content of the
lecture remains the same for each student regardless of his or her
individual needs. This model has worked well for centuries, however, in
part because it is efficient for teachers. Its focus is on teaching
rather than learning.

Wind and Reibstein propose a new
management education paradigm that changes this approach. Their model
attempts to go from being a supplier-driven system that works
efficiently for the teacher to a consumer-driven system that works
effectively for students, making learners active participants or
"co-producers" in the educational process. The new model focuses on
learning rather than on teaching. "Companies can use technology to
create just-in-time learning and decision support systems that harness
and disseminate the knowledge of the organization and help managers
make better decisions while learning," say Wind and Reibstein.

According
to Wind and Reibstein, the new model achieves its goals by moving from
standardized to customized content, from discrete time and place to
anytime and anyplace delivery, and from passive lecture models to
interactive and applied learning. Instead of squeezing managers into
the constraints of educational programs, the new model focuses on
designing education tailored to the needs of students.

How would
all this work in practice? Suppose, for example, a manager going
through a decision support system incorporating an educational
component though is asked a question about "price elasticity." Suppose
further that the manager doesn t fully understand the concept. The
system immediately introduces a learning module that explains the
concept before returning to the decision framework. The education comes
at the same time as its application in the real world  "the test" 
anytime and anywhere.

Wind and Reibstein say that the primary shifts in the new paradigm occur along three dimensions:

  • From Standardized to Customized Educational Content: Where
    traditional programs offer standardized content  calcified in specific
    courses  the new paradigm should offer customized knowledge tailored
    to the backgrounds, interests, learning styles and motivation of the
    student.
  • From Passive to Active Learning: The
    classroom model of education, and even some CD-ROM and online programs
    are based on a broadcast model in which knowledge from the presenter is
    communicated to the student. The new model is active, experiential
    learning in which students are presented with real-world problems and
    challenged to find solutions in context.
  • From Fixed to Fluid Time and Place: Traditional
    learning is delivered in a specific location at a specific time,
    presumably to amortize the "set-up" time for a course. The new
    technology allows students to learn anytime, anyplace and in any
    increment of time. Institutions need to change their educational models
    to deliver this just-in-time learning.

In addition to developing this theoretical model, Wind, who also directs Wharton s SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management,
is leading an attempt to create such a system in practice. Known as the
Wharton e-Fellows program, he says it "illustrates the new paradigm in
action." The program aims at creating a virtual community that lets
participants engage in life-long learning with faculty and other
Fellows. "Most of the electronic interaction among the fellows will
involve customized, on-demand education," says Wind. "Through projects,
shadow projects and action memos, we will focus on action learning and
immediate impact."

Does the emergence of new educational
paradigms mean that the traditional classroom is dead? Just as
e-business leaders are finding that they need a combination of "clicks
and bricks," Wind points out that educators are creating hybrid models,
combining localized, face-to-face interactions with more customizable
and portable components. The e-Fellows program, too, will have a hybrid
model. "This is the first step towards creating a general decision
support system that managers could use anytime and anyplace for
just-in-time learning," says Wind. "Companies also can use the platform
to share their specific knowledge across the organization."

Will
the new paradigm work? It is too early to say, and Wind and Reibstein
admit that experiments often "open the possibility of making mistakes."
Still, they believe that organizations must constantly explore new ways
to increase the knowledge of their employees, even if this involves
acting in ways that require courage and commitment. "The only truly
secure position in today s turbulent environment is to assure the
organization can consistently provide value by adapting to and driving
change in the envirionment," they point out. "Training programs have an
opportunity to substantially increase the value they deliver, but only
if they can rise to the challenge of reinvention."

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