In the 1980s at start of my career, I was excited to learn about Just In Time (JIT) manufacturing based on lessons learned from the Japanese manufacturing model.
I wasn’t in an industry that could take advantage of this, and I didn’t have an incentive to study it deeply. But the basic idea stuck in my mind as making a lot of sense.
Coincidentally, this was also a period of time when I finally got snagged into the personal computer market. Despite may technical background, I avoided participation in the personal computer market throughout my undergraduate years (they were just becoming affordable at my senior year) and throughout my first several years of work. I recall distinctly of making it a goal to avoid them for the rest of my life. Computers were much more of a pain to use back then. But then I joined a graduate program where by that time the incoming undergrad freshman class was required to buy a computer. Certainly the graduate class was expected to be well equipped a long time before entering graduate school. But, I came armed with a programmable calculator.
A little gentle encouragement in the way of a first assignment convinced me I had better buy one and learn how to use it. This is 1989, so it is pretty late already to still being very attached to my electric typewriter (even to this day I regret letting it go). A first of anything stands out in memory and the first computer I owned was memorable in part because of the hours I spent writing my graduate thesis. I miss its slow-phosphor orange glow text-only screen.
After getting my masters, I returned to having a paycheck and entered a period where I would buy a new computer every 2 years, sometimes just to have the latest stuff, but at least once because something failed and I realized it was a better deal just to replace it. During this time, I did put the computer to productive use to prepare myself for the next day of work.
Somewhere around this time, I began thinking about what I was using the computer for. It was kind of work related but not really work. I came up with the phrase Just In Time Learning. At work, I would hear of something computer related and then I’d spend time trying to find out what I can learn about it and try it for myself. The pace was slow enough then that by the time the topic came up again, I knew something about what was being talked about.
The Just In Time concept then crept into my computer buying when I found myself being drawn to buy yet another computer simply because the new stuff seemed so interesting. The more interesting stuff was probably the advances in video and audio at the time. I stopped myself and imposed a new rule that I would only buy a new computer if I can describe a particular task that would require from it and then I would buy what is best up to that task. I never was a gamer and thus multimedia capabilities didn’t cut it for my new threshold. At about this time, my job changed that presented less opportunity for trying to follow along at home. I dropped out of the race to stay up to date.
I liked this idea though that I’ll buy a computer only after identifying a requirement. I’ll get one Just In Time.
All that side story is to say I began thinking the same way about education. By the early 2000s I was keenly aware of how out of date my 1980s education in electrical engineering has become. I had the usual sky’s-the-limit attitude of youth, but there were some pretty strong statements about physical limitations that essentially ruled out any possibility of seeing in my lifetime what became commonplace in the 2000s.
I don’t mind that too much because when I took undergraduate studies I never had in my mind that I was learning for a job. I took classes on things I knew I would never get a job in. And when I went looking for a job, I pointed to my education as proof I can learn, not that anything in my education was particularly relevant. That actually worked at the time. There was no expectation that a new hire would be precisely ready for the task. We had training when needed. This was so much part of the culture I didn’t even think of it as Just In Time training. It was just what you do when you are an employee.
The thought of Just In Time learning occurred when I re-entered graduate school when I found out that there were things that I was expected to already know. The first example was an expectation that any electrical engineer in the 1980s would know Fortran. Believe it or not, I managed to get that far without ever learning it. I kind of cheated in undergraduate school by learning the computer-science equivalent of PL/1. First assignment in graduate school required solving a problem in Fortran that I had yet to learn. I finished the assignment on time.
In hindsight this made sense. I had no need to use Fortran after leaving grad school. My first job after graduate school required mainframe programming that just so conveniently involved PL/1. But I wasn’t prepared for IBM mainframe programming such as using the mainframe terminal (whatever it was, I forget now) or preparing batches using JCL. I got by with just in time learning.
My next job was in the mid 1990s. By this time object-oriented programming was very well established and this new job on was heavily object-oriented (in a more purist form than we see now). Although I read about it, I had no experience working with it. I learned quickly, and just in time. I did very well at that job.
This little bit of autobiography explains a conclusion I made about education. I feel strongly that a multi-year program of education should not be considered job training. The hot topics when you start that education will not be hot when you get out. When you get out, there were be hot topics you didn’t see coming. Job training is more appropriately in the current trends of certifications and if necessary short intense training sessions usually of a week or a few weeks. It is Just In Time learning because you know the training will be applicable for a job.
General education starting with elementary and secondary school and going through undergraduate college should not be targeting job training. I don’t accept the idea that education should be measured by the ability of the students to walk straight into a job. If anything, the education prepares for the student to take certification training in a particular field after graduation. But the more important goals for education are the timeless foundation topics. Basic physics, chemistry, mathematics (though calculus), high-grade level language composition and comprehension skills, research skills, and so on. This type of education is best provided in the school environment because they require a lot of time to learn. I don’t see how these skills can be learned just in time.
What I see now is that the primary, secondary, and college education are adopting the models of specialized certifications. The standardized testing in particular seems to be modeled after job-level certification exams. The difference is that certification exams are for adults preparing for immediate jobs, standardized test preparation is occurring a decade or more before a job.
As I mentioned in an early post, job-specific certifications tests for very fluid knowledge. A professional certification typically expires after a few years requiring renewal with a new exam or proof of continued education.
An analogy I have is that we’re expecting students to compete against Google or Wikipedia — the websites, not the companies. This makes no sense to me. When they need knowledge, they should know how to find it. Why are we expecting them to have it burned in their brains?
The focus of education should be to prepare for rapid learning so they can get up to speed as quickly as possible when something new is required. The goal of education should not be to know stuff, but instead to be quick about learning stuff and to be able to think critically about new material instead of merely recalling what was learned in school. I am very skeptical that standardized curriculum, common core of knowledge, or computer graded multiple-choice exams are compatible with this type of learning.
I fear that we are setting up a generation for failure.