Entering the Shift Age

Entering the Shift Age

I am reading a book published in 2012 titled Entering the Shift Age, by David Houle.

For those of you who are familiar with adult education theory, David’s father was Cyril O. Houle, who taught at the University of Chicago and was very influential in the field of adult learning. Cyril Houle’s seminal book The Inquiring Mind was published by the OU Press; Houle was very influential on the thinking of Malcolm Knowles and the University of Oklahoma’s very own Thurman White.

David Houle’s book has relevance to the idea of the digital university. David Houle is a futurist, and his book says that we have left the Information Age, and are entering what he calls the “Shift Age.” For those of you unfamiliar with futurism and the work of Toffler, there have been three ages in human history: The Agricultural Age, which lasted thousands of years; the Industrial Age, which lasted about 250 years, and the Information Age, which has only lasted about 25-30 years.

Houle claims that we are already leaving the Information Age, and are entering the Shift Age. He claims that the years 2010-2020 will set the stage for the remainder of the 21st century. He sees three dominant forces shaping the Shift Age.

Shaping the Shift Age

1.) The Flow to the Global – we are becoming the electronically connected global village that Marshall McLuhan predicted so many years ago. This globalized sense of humanity will overturn the sense of place that has been the basis of much human identity in human history. He says truly we will be citizens of the globe, as well as citizens of a nation-state, but believes that nation-states will become less important as world-wide electronic communities emerge.

2.) The Flow to the Individual – Due to emerging electronic communication technologies, each individual human being can now be a content producer and a publisher, and potentially have an impact on the whole world. He says publishing companies and media outlets will be challenged by the “disintermediation” brought about through global electronic communications.

3.) Accelerating Electronic Connectedness – Houle uses graphs to demonstrate the remarkable explosion of cell phone technologies since their invention in the early 1980s. There are now, over 7 billion cell phone subscribers globally. Says Houle, “So for the first time in human history, it can be said that time, distance and place no longer limit human connection. … In the some 150,000 years that modern humans have lived on earth, only in the last five years has human communication been freed from the limitations of time, distance and place” (p. 59).

What will this mean for higher education?

He claims all of these forces will have a tremendous impact on higher education, forcing it to change to meet the expectations of the millennial and digital native generations. In an interesting aside, he says if you brought a human being from 250 years ago to the present day, and showed them an automobile, they would be shocked and want to know how it worked. If you showed them a cell phone or a flat screen television, they would be astounded by those things. But, if you walked them into a modern university classroom, they would likely recognize it as a university classroom. He says higher education has been slow and reluctant to change its organization and methods. 

Digital learning and digital universities will be the natural result of the three forces Houle identifies as shaping the Shift Age. He points out that some universities have already caught on, and are making their content available for free via online courses: Harvard, MIT, Duke, “Higher education is leaping from the ivy-walled confines of campuses to computers everywhere” (p. 89).

I find much of what Houle says to be very much aligned with the directions the College of Liberal Studies has taken. When we launched our first online courses in 1996, we were the online course paradigm pioneers for the University of Oklahoma. The challenge we now face, in my opinion, is keeping up with the ever-accelerating pace of global connectivity, and the availability of free content. Our task, in my opinion, will be to help our students make sense of the profusion of content, and to determine which information is sound from that which is JUST sound (as in, digital noise from people with an axe to grind or a product to sell).

Houle says, “One clear difference between the Information Age and the Shift Age is content and context. The true cliché of the Information Age was ‘content is king.’ The reality of the Shift Age is ‘context is king.’ Entering the Shift Age, we live in an increasingly contextual world” (p.105).

As educators, then, our task may be to act as contextualizers for our students. That, however, is right in line with the original intent of the College of Liberal Studies (and higher education as a whole). The founders of the College of Liberal Studies wanted students to have a better understanding of the “central learnings and central problems” of humanity. The believed the best way to accomplish that was to produce graduates who have a solid contextual understanding of the great ideas, great discoveries and great artwork of human history. By contextualizing the present with the past, it was hoped our graduates would be best prepared for the future, whatever shifts may come.

Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017.

Frank Rodriquez

Frank Rodriquez

Francisco (Frank) G. Rodriquez is Director of Operations and Student Support Services for the College of Professional and Continuing Studies. He has worked for 23 years at the College of Professional and Continuing Studies, and has 30 years of experience working in Oklahoma higher education.