Education in a Knowledge Economy | Sunday Observer

Education in a Knowledge Economy

There have been many discussions, in the recent past, about creating a ‘Knowledge Economy’ in Sri Lanka and even about making the country the ‘Educational Hub’ of south-east Asia, especially, after experimenting with some teaching-learning sessions via the internet (calling it an ‘online course’) during this Covid-19 pandemic. Some are of the view that we can have as many students as possible in a particular class since we do not need to provide infrastructure facilities to house them in one classroom.

Therefore, the explanation is that this is the best time to develop the ‘Knowledge Economy’ of the country since it is a matter of creating the demand where the supply won’t be a problem. Creating the demand, in this thought process, is also not expected to be a difficult task due to two main reasons: a) the staggering unemployment numbers all over the world will make many people want to have more educational qualifications under their belt, in order to win the fierce competition predicted in the job market in the next few years. b) expectation of a ‘new normal’ in the way people would live their lives after learning a variety of lessons from this pandemic, one of which is the willingness to continue social distancing which can be used to encourage more people to obtain those qualifications through online programs.

Unfortunately, ‘Knowledge Economy’ does not mean just a process of buying and selling diplomas, degrees and other qualifications and similar expectations for the ‘new normal’ when previous such pandemics and/or other crises have never been met either.

It is always good to have such discussions and plans for improving the economy with the pure intention of having the benefits of the outcomes also shared by the citizenry of the country.

But when it comes to implementing such plans and/or policies we have to make sure that they are based on facts and figures which are tested and proven in similar situations or the types of successes shown, at least, at some small scale trials. It would be better to think and go a little deeper into the meanings of these words, phrases, ideas, plans and policies before everyone gets all excited about the rhetoric.

Education: A process of teaching, training and learning to improve knowledge and develop skills. The etymology shows that the Latin word educere, meaning ‘lead out’, as the origin of the English word ‘education’ which describe the process of bringing one’s knowledge and capabilities out.

Knowledge: Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering or learning.

Economy: The origin of the word ‘economy’ can be traced back to the Greek word ‘Oikonomia’ which means ‘household management’ and therefore, ‘economics’ would mean the ‘knowledge and principles of household management’. The economic systems dating back to about 2500 BC did not attempt to solve any economic problem without connecting the dots with the existing philosophical, social, ethical and political framework at the time.

Knowledge Economy: Use of knowledge to create goods and services. In particular, it refers to a high portion of skilled workers in the economy of a locality, country, or the world, and the idea that most jobs require specialised skills.(Wikipedia)

The origin, evolution and the commonly used definitions of these words and phrases would then lead us to visualise the ‘Education in a Knowledge Economy’ as “The process of teaching, training and learning to develop and bring one’s awareness of facts, information, descriptions, abilities and skills, out through experience, perception and discovery in order to make him/her an active participant, a valuable contributor and also a satisfied beneficiary of a household management system based on goods and services created using knowledge.

Knowledge was a key factor for one player to achieve a higher performance than another even in an agricultural or an industrial economy. But the terms ‘Knowledge Worker’ and ‘Knowledge Economy’, as we know them today, have been introduced first in the late 1950s by the famous Austrian-American management guru, Peter Ferdinand Drucker. He has also said that the society rearranges its basic value systems, social and political structures and as a result its perception of the world, in cycles of three to four decades.

In 1959, he predicted that the world will shift to a ‘knowledge society’ in the next cycle where knowledge will be the dominant factor. He had even spelt it out saying that this transformation to the ‘knowledge society’ would perhaps be completed around 2020 and therefore, the most important contribution the management needs to make in the twenty-first century is to increase the productivity of the ‘knowledge worker’.

Though his estimate of the time duration for the completion of the cycle is not accurate, what we see happening around the world today certainly proves that Drucker’s predictions are being manifested in real time right before our eyes. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to look into his prescriptions for managing institutions in this ‘knowledge society’. Providing employee autonomy instead of a top-down approach is very important since a ‘knowledge worker’ in a specialised area would most probably know more about his area of focus and about his customer’s needs than his supervisor or the manager. ‘Knowledge workers’ are highly motivated, just like volunteers in a charity organisation, when they understand the mission of the organisation they work for and if they believe in it.

The World Bank defines, a) economic and institutional regime, b) education and skills, c) information and communication infrastructure and d) innovation system, as four pillars of the ‘knowledge economy’.

It is extremely important to have an education system, from kindergarten all the way to universities, where each person’s natural talents and thought patterns are recognised and supported.

A society that is afraid of and discourages free thinkers will not be able to produce entrepreneurs and innovators. The producing of ‘knowledge workers’ does not mean that education will be limited to the natural sciences. These ‘knowledge workers’ who will enjoy the employee autonomy will also be a part of the decision making process in their own organisation and perhaps even in other institutions.

Therefore, it is important that their knowledge is enhanced with all areas of interest. The World Bank, through its Knowledge Assessment Methodologies, calculates two indices, Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) and Knowledge Index (KI) to keep track of the rates of development of ‘knowledge economies’ around the world.

The ranking of countries according to those indices has Sri Lanka at 82 while Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Canada, Switzerland, UK, USA and Australia fill the top ten positions respectively. The readers who have experienced the education system in Sri Lanka should be able to make the judgment whether the country is in the neighbourhood of matching the rhetoric of creating a ‘knowledge economy’ and whether the current education system of the country is capable of producing free thinking ‘knowledge workers’ for such a knowledge economy.

(The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected])